Advanced Internet Censorship With Netsweeper

A new deployment of at least ten content-censoring servers

Canadian company’s software may be used to stifle freedom of expression in Bahrain

In an agreement worth more than $1.1 million USD ($1.5m CAD or 410,000 BD), a Canadian company called Netsweeper last month placed an invited bid with Bahrain’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) to implement a “National Website Filtering Solution.” Given that the government of Bahrain has employed website filtering technology in the past to block access to political and human rights content, there is serious concern that the government will use Netsweeper’s product to bolster online censorship.

Figure 1: Image from Bahrain’s Tender Board website, showing summary of the bid from Netsweeper .

The “Tender Type” in the above image is listed as “selected” as opposed to “public”; the government generally uses this category to invite a small number of companies to submit bids for the project and not open it for public submission.

The Government of Bahrain is well known for censoring content online in violation of freedom of expression. For example, the website for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights has been blocked since 2006 , popular web forum BahrainOnline has been blocked since 2002 , and the website of opposition e-newspaper Bahrain Mirror , launched in May 2011 , has been blocked since June 2011 . The government has also blocked sites providing streaming video of protests, including officially licensed protests , as well as at least one YouTube video showing use of excessive force by police .

The websites of circumvention and proxy tools including Tor, and Google Translate’s web page translation feature, are also blocked in Bahrain. This continued blocking, alongside the government’s well-documented abuse of surveillance tools including Trovicor and FinFisher , and prosecution of anonymous Twitter users for insulting the King, led Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to classify Bahrain as an “Enemy of the Internet” in 2012 , 2013 , and 2014 . In 2015, RSF selected Bahrain as one of 11 countries in its 2015 Collateral Freedom project against Internet censorship. Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom on the Net report classifies Bahrain as “not free” .

screenshot of blocked site in Bahrain Figure 2: A page shown to users who attempt to access a blocked website inside Bahrain.

What does Netsweeper do?

Netsweeper acts on all traffic on on an Internet link (typically a backbone Internet link), and blocks access to websites by checking URLs against a database of prohibited sites. Netsweeper can also analyze and classify websites not yet categorized. According to their website, Netsweeper currently has a database of over eight billion categorized web pages , and adds to that at a rate of more than 22 million URLs each day. Using the Netsweeper software, the government of Bahrain would be able to customize their own filters to block specific content. With Netsweeper’s detailed categorization of sites, Bahrain would be able to dramatically control its citizens access to information, and shape the political environment.

Where is Netsweeper used?

Netsweeper is used in several states throughout the Middle East. In 2011, Netsweeper’s technology was documented blocking access to human rights, religious, and independent journalism resources on state-operated ISPs in Qatar, UAE and Yemen. Netsweeper formerly advertised their product as a means to censor content “based on social, religious, or political ideals”. When asked about the use of their product by repressive regimes, a Netsweeper spokesperson stated in 2011 that “there’s no good conversation for us to have” on the issue . The company has since maintained a no-comment policy.

In Yemen, Netsweeper was documented in use on a state owned and operated ISP network (YemenNet), which was the most popular ISP in Yemen at the time. Netsweeper in Yemen was employed to block subscribers’ access to all URLs using the “.il” (Israel) top level domain.

In 2012, Pakistan solicited proposals for the “deployment and operation of a national level URL Filtering and Blocking System”. In 2013, Citizen Lab documented the use of Netsweeper technology in Pakistan. Netsweeper in Pakistan has been used to block access to web pages related to human rights, religious topics, and independent media.

Why does Canada allow the export of this potentially harmful software? Netsweeper claims that its product can be used to protect users from malicious attacks online, and can filter dangerous content for young students in schools.

However, the export of such dual-use technologies can be problematic. As a result of investigations conducted by Bahrain Watch and Citizen Lab, the OECD ruled in 2014 that the sale of FinFisher spyware (a dual-use technology) to the Government of Bahrain was inconsistent with OECD guidelines on human rights. The OECD remarked that “addressing actual and potential human rights impacts consists of taking adequate measures for their identification, prevention, where possible and mitigation of potential human rights impacts, remediation of actual impacts and accounting for how the adverse human rights impacts are addressed”.29 It is unclear to what extent Netsweeper has considered these issues in respect to its bid to assist Bahrain with website filtering.

Bahrain Watch’s Continuing Investigation

Bahrain Watch continues to monitor Internet censorship and surveillance in Bahrain. Please direct any questions or information regarding the Internet in Bahrain to: [email protected]