Gulf Countries Use Canadian Filtering Technology to Block Entire Categories of Websites

A diagram from CitizenLab explaining Netsweeper’s filtering process. April 2018.

Researchers revealed in April that internet filtering technologies produced by Netsweeper, an Ontario-based technology company with offices in the UAE and distributors in the Middle East, existed on state-owned public networks in the Gulf. These technologies filter opposition websites, major international news outlets, human rights and gay rights content, and internet circumvention tools.

According to “Planet Netsweeper,” a recent report from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab,  Netsweeper uses “real-time web content categorization” to block websites, enabling countries like Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Yemen to select entire categories of content to block. These categories can include “general news,” “hate speech,” “alternative lifestyles,” “porn,” “abortion,” “web proxy,” and “custom.”

The “custom” category gives the governments the ability to censor a wide range of content. For example, although “web proxy” exists as an independent category, Qatar uses the “custom” filter to block Hotspot Shield, a circumvention tool, and the UAE uses it to block a range of VoIP services and circumvention tools. On the other hand, Bahrain uses the “custom” filter to block al-Manar, the Hezbollah-linked news site. Additionally, researchers found that blocked content in some countries, including Yemen, did not fall under a specific category.

Many of the websites filtered do not actually fall under the specified category. This issue is particularly pronounced with the “porn” filter, which multiple countries–including Kuwait and the UAE–use to block access to health information and LGBTQ+ websites. Moreover, Kuwait even uses it to block websites of various news organizations and opposition websites. Netsweeper has not provided any explanation for how these mischaracterizations could occur.  

The Citizen Lab report emphasizes that Netsweeper has done little to address human rights and privacy concerns. Moreover, the Canadian government has not held the company accountable for the technology that it sells internationally. If you live in one of the countries where Netsweeper is operating on public networks, you can contact the Canadian consulate or embassy using the information below to demand that Canada impose regulations for Netsweeper and other similar companies.

If you live in…

Contact…

At this number…

Or this email…

Bahrain

Consulate of Canada to Bahrain, Manama

17536270

canadabh@zubipartners.com

Kuwait

Embassy of Canada to Kuwait

(965) 2256 3025

kwait@international.gc.ca

Qatar

Embassy of Canada to Qatar

(974) 4419 9000

dohag@international.gc.ca

Saudi Arabia

Embassy of Canada to Saudi Arabia

+966 11 488 2288

RYADHG@international.gc.ca

UAE

Embassy of Canada to the UAE

971-(0) 2-694-0300

abdbi@international.gc.ca

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