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Ottawa needs to act on global censorship of LGBTQ2+ content

By Ronald Deibert       

While the Trudeau government has made strong policy commitments to both LGBTQ2+ rights and internet openness, the Canadian government has also supported Netsweeper, an internet-filtering company in Waterloo, Ont., through various forms of trade promotion, loan guarantees, awards, and extensive research and development funding, writes the director of Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.

The Citizen Lab has sent an open letter to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland in advance of a global gathering on LGBTI human rights issues in Vancouver next week. The Hill Times file photo by Andrew Meade
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There can be no doubt Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has been an outspoken advocate for the protection and promotion of LGBTQ2+ rights.  But do deeds match words? According to our research, the answer is “no.”

Earlier this year, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab produced a major evidence-based report on internet censorship connected to Netsweeper Inc., a Waterloo, Ont.-based internet filtering company.

Using a combination of rigorous technical tests, we identified Netsweeper installations designed to filter internet content in 30 countries. Further tests narrowed our list to 10 countries of interest that appear to be filtering content for national-level, consumer-facing internet service providers: Afghanistan, Bahrain, India, Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Yemen. Our tests showed that Netsweeper technology is being used in these countries to block access to a wide range of digital content protected by international human rights law frameworks, including religious content in Bahrain, political campaigns in the UAE, and media websites in Yemen.

We also found Netsweeper’s technology was being used to block LGBTQ2+ content, sometimes through operator decisions to add such content to block lists, and other times as a consequence of mischaracterization and/or over-blocking. For example, Google searches for the keywords “gay” and “lesbian” were blocked by Netsweeper technology in the UAE, Bahrain, and Yemen. In the UAE and Bahrain, these searches were blocked because the Google search URL for these terms was included by default in Netsweeper’s “pornography” category.

Perhaps the most egregious of our findings concerned Netsweeper’s “alternative lifestyles” filtering category, which appears to be designed to censor non-pornographic LGBTQ2+ content, including that published by civil rights and advocacy organizations, HIV/AIDS prevention organizations, and LGBTQ2+ media and cultural groups.  This category is, in other words, a simple, “push-button” way provided by Netsweeper for countries to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

What did Netsweeper have to say about our report? Prior to our publication, we sent a letter to the company with questions, promising to publish in full their response. They never replied to us directly (although the CEO, Perry Roach, told the CBC he thought our report was “bullshit”).  Such a callous dismissal of peer-reviewed research findings speaks volumes about the company’s corporate social responsibility practices.  In the absence of rules to the contrary, it seems Netsweeper will continue with business as usual—which raises the question: what should the Canadian government do?  

While the Trudeau government has made strong policy commitments to both LGBTQ2+ rights and internet openness, the Canadian government has also supported Netsweeper through various forms of trade promotion, loan guarantees, awards, and extensive research and development funding. In response to our report, Global Affairs Canada simply stated it would “continue to engage with our partners on the review of this type of technology.” It failed to offer any concrete commitments or actions.

We also raised the issue in a detailed open letter to Randy Boissonnault, Liberal MP and special adviser to the prime minister on LGBTQ2+ Issues. Despite emails and phone calls to his Parliament Hill office, contact through social media, and extensive news coverage of the Citizen Lab report, Mr. Boissonnault has not even acknowledged the letter—let alone issue a formal reply.

This week, Ottawa has an important opportunity to step up: Canada is hosting the Equal Rights Coalition (ERC) Global Conference on LGBTI Human Rights and Inclusive Development, from Aug. 5-7, 2018, in Vancouver. The ERC, co-chaired by Canada, describes itself as “the first-ever intergovernmental coalition dedicated to the protection of the rights of LGBTI people around the world.”

The Citizen Lab has sent an open letter to the foreign affairs ministers of both Canada and Chile, which serve as co-chairs of the ERC, and Mr. Boissonnault, once again flagging this important issue and urging action.

We are calling on the ERC, and the Canadian government in particular, to condemn the online censorship of LGBTQ2+ content, which violates international human rights law, and recognize that internet filtering technologies used to target LGBTQ2+ content have serious human rights impacts. We urge that they commit states to taking specific and measurable action to prevent and address the censorship of LGBTQ2+ content, in line with international legal obligations and domestic law and policy. And we request that they affirm that internet-filtering technology providers, like Netsweeper, have a responsibility to respect the human rights of LGBTQ2+ persons by ensuring their products and services do not facilitate censorship of LGBTQ2+ content, and to provide a remedy when such censorship occurs.

It’s encouraging that the Trudeau government has advocated for LGBTQ2+ rights, but talk is cheap. Canada needs to start by cleaning its own house, and take action to prevent the use of Canadian-made technology to censor access to legitimate LGBTQ2+ content worldwide.

Ronald Deibert is a political science professor and director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

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