IN THE NEWS ~ Canada needs clear cyberspace censorship policy, watchdog says

Nicki Thomas, Staff Reporter

Government representatives looked on as a Canadian company celebrated its collaboration with a Middle Eastern telecom last month, a scene that critics say demands an explanation.

Netsweeper Inc., a Guelph-based developer of content filtering software, presented the United Arab Emirates telecom Du with an award for its use of green technology in late June. Attendees at the function included a trade commissioner from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, as well as representatives from the National Research Council and the Ontario Centres of Excellence, a provincial agency funded by the Ministry of Research and Innovation.

Du uses Netsweeper software to block content from UAE Internet users, including political, religious and human rights material, according to the Open Net Initiative, a collective of researchers that track Internet censorship and surveillance.

Netsweeper has declined to comment on content filtering in the past and did not return a request for comment for this article.

It is not illegal for Canadian companies to market filtering software abroad. Government spokespersons said it’s typical for representatives to attend networking events like the one held by Netsweeper.

But Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab, an Open Net partner at the University of Toronto, said the relationship between government and Netsweeper demonstrates “typical short-sighted encouragement of local technology” without “broader consideration of the implications.”

He said Canada needs to establish a clear foreign policy on access to information and freedom of speech in cyberspace.

“There is a growing recognition among liberal democratic countries and certainly in civil society that filtering access to information should be the exception, not the rule,” Deibert said.

So far, the federal government has not said whether it would consider prohibiting domestic companies from marketing technology in countries where governments issue edicts on what their citizens can access online.

South of the border, the proposed Global Online Freedom Act seeks to “prevent United States businesses from cooperating with repressive governments in transforming the Internet into a tool of censorship and surveillance.”

Peter Julian, NDP MP for Burnaby-New Westminster, and the party’s industry critic, said the government must address this issue when it resumes in the fall. He said the attendance of government officials at a Netsweeper event “raises huge alarms.”

“It begs the question: Is the federal government giving tacit or open support to the end results of this online censorship?” he said, adding that limiting access to information is out of step with Canadian values.

“I think most Canadians would say this is completely inappropriate,” he said.

In a statement, Foreign Affairs and International Trade spokeswoman Caitlin Workman said it’s standard for a trade commissioner to attend networking events.

“(Trade commissioners help) companies succeed globally by helping Canadian entrepreneurs prepare for international markets, assess market potential, and find qualified contacts abroad,” Workman wrote in an email, adding that the government “expects all Canadian companies working internationally to abide by all applicable domestic and international laws and corporate social responsibility standards.”

Charles Drouin, a spokesman for the National Research Council, said it’s also common for their agency to be “invited to celebrate innovation success.” Netsweeper received two grants from NRC totalling around $350,000 in 2007 and 2009.

The Ontario Centres of Excellence has provided funding to Netsweeper in the past, as well. Spokeswoman Denny Allen said OCE maintains relationships with its partner organizations but does not condone unethical activity.

Filtering in the UAE is mandated by the country’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, which implements policy prohibiting access to a range of content, including pornography, gambling, and material related to terrorism. Past testing by Open Net has found that sites critical of Islam or the government’s human rights practices have also been blocked, along with secular and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender material, dating services and proxy and anonymity tools.

According to Open Net, UAE’s other telecom, Etisalat, uses McAfee’s Smartfilter software.