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An Internet Censorship Company Tried to Sue the Researchers Who Exposed Them

The researchers say this won’t be the last time.

Netsweeper is a small Canadian company with a disarmingly boring name and an office nestled among the squat buildings of Waterloo, Ontario. But its services—namely, online censorship—are offered in countries as far-flung as Bahrain and Yemen.

In 2015, University of Toronto-based research hub Citizen Lab reported that Netsweeper was providing Yemeni rebels with censorship technology. In response, Citizen Lab director Ron Deibert revealed in a blog post on Tuesday, Netsweeper sued the university and Deibert for defamation. Netsweeper discontinued its lawsuit in its entirety in April.

If the suit was successful, Deibert wrote, damages would have amounted to more than $3 million.

"It should be pointed out that this is not the first time a company has contemplated legal action regarding the work of the Citizen Lab," Deibert wrote. "However, it is the first time that a company has gone so far as to begin litigation proceedings. I suspect it will not be the last."

"It is clearly in the public interest for them to be able to share those results"

When reached over email, Deibert said Citizen Lab is not offering comments to the press on the lawsuit. Netsweeper did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment.

If the lawsuit had gone to court, Deibert wrote that Citizen Lab intended to lean on the 2015 Protection of Public Participation Act, which was designed to thwart litigation against organizations acting in the public interest.

"Citizen Lab does rigorous research into censorship, surveillance, and digital attacks and it is clearly in the public interest for them to be able to share those results," Brenda McPhail, director of the surveillance project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, wrote Motherboard in an email. "We support their right to freely disseminate and discuss their important work."

Netsweeper has come under scrutiny numerous times in the past several years, most recently because it was paid $1,175,000 by the Bahraini government for providing a "national website filtering solution," according to a tender filed by the government in January of this year. Previously, the media has criticized Netsweeper for providing similar services to censorious countries like Pakistan, Quatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

Even though Netsweeper decided to discontinue their lawsuit, they may very well embolden other companies, upset about having their misdeeds aired in public, to sue the researchers who expose them.