Canadian tech company sells software to Bahrain to stifle dissidents

Canada may be having a PR crisis. While Canadian Prime Minister is advocating hard at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday this week at making a bid to win a temporary seat on the UN Security Council, a Canadian company based in Waterloo, Ontario is allegedly assisting a repressive Mideast state to keep its citizens from learning about news, religion and politics.

TOPSHOTS Bahraini protestors wave their ...TOPSHOTS Bahraini protestors wave their national flag as they stand behind barbed wire placed by riot police during demonstration against the ruling regime in the village of Shakhora, west of Manama, on August 14, 2013.. Bahraini police headed off a protest against Gulf kingdom's Sunni rulers that the Shiite-led opposition activists called for near the US embassy in defiance of a ban. The police deployment prevented protesters from reaching the spot designated by the Bahrain Rebellion Movement, Tamarod, for the main rally outside the US embassy in the capital Manama. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKHMOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images

A new report by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs discovered that Netsweeper Inc., a technology company headquartered in Waterloo, has been offering web filtering software to the kingdom of Bahrain since this summer.

“We confirm that Netsweeper technology is being used by at least one key Internet service provider… to filter content, including critical political speech, news websites, human-rights content, websites of oppositional political groups and Shia-related content,” the report reads. In addition to Silencing dissidents, the Sunni-dominated monarchy is going so far as to use the software to deny Bahrain’s majority Shia citizens access to basic information about their religion and religious leaders.

“Testing on the ISP Batelco shows that at least one of the Netsweeper installations is being used to filter political content, including content relating to human rights, oppositional political websites, Shiite websites, local and regional news sources, and content critical of religion.” wrote the report.

According to the report, the technology installations appear to “have become active between May and July 2016, a few months after the release of a public tender by Bahrain’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority in January 2016 indicating Netsweeper won a bid to provide a ‘national website filtering solution.’”

The Kingdom of Bahrain is rated by Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom on the Net report as ‘Not Free’, earning it the 9th lowest score of the 65 countries examined. The country was named by Reporters Without Borders as one of the “Enemies of the Internet“.

Ron Deibert, the director of The Citizen Lab, said to the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, that “I think the government has to develop some kind of guideline that would require Netsweeper, and other companies like them to apply for a license to export their technology, that would have a checklist around due diligence for human rights.”

Bahrain had used Web-scrubbing software developed by an American company before it awarded Netsweeper a $1.2-million contract earlier this year.

If you’re in Bahrain and having trouble accessing websites, it might be a good time to get a VPN.

Reina Ho

Reina Ho is a freelance reporter who focuses on censorship and information control in online space.

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