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Researchers Accuse Canadian Internet Company of Helping Yemen Censor the Web

Citizen Lab says the Houthi rebels got help from Netsweeper to censor news and political websites.

The Yemeni civil war, which has killed more than 5,400 people in seven months, has been fought not only on the streets, but online as well.

Houthi rebels, who have forced the government into exile, have been using technology provided by Canadian internet-filtering company Netsweeper to indiscriminately censor large swaths of the internet critical of the rebel group, according to new research.

Researchers at the Citizen Lab, a digital watchdog at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, probed Yemen's internet for months looking for evidence of censorship. They found that the Houthis have made a "concerted effort to shape the information environment in the country."

That effort has resulted in the censorship of independent and critical local media—as well as all websites registered with Israel's ".il" top-level domain—all thanks to Netsweeper's tech.

"Companies that provide censorship technologies in the course of an armed conflict have a special responsibility."

Netsweeper did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment.

The company also sells internet filtering technology to countries such as Pakistan or Somalia, and according to Citizen Lab researchers, has a moral responsibility to withhold its services from a country in the middle of a bloody war, where a rebel group has control of key infrastructure such as the internet.

"Companies that provide censorship technologies in the course of an armed conflict have a special responsibility to do due diligence. They are, in effect, participants in the conflict," Ronald Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab, told Motherboard over the phone.

Deibert said Netsweeper should have stopped providing services to Yemen when the Houthis took over the capital Sana'a, and took control of the main government-owned internet service provider YemenNet.

The front gate of YemenNet headquarters, with the Houthis slogan visible on the right and left walls. For Citizen Lab, this is further proof that the Houthis have control of the ISP. (Image: Naser Noor/Citizen Lab)

Deibert and his colleagues at the Citizen Lab have collected "absolutely watertight evidence" that Netsweeper not only sold its hardware to Yemen, but is still actively providing its filtering services. Netsweeper maintains a default database of inappropriate websites to censor, as well as a live filtering system that can censor website that are not in the database according to customers' demands—services that require the devices in Yemen to communicate with Netsweeper servers in North America.

The Houthis, according to Citizen Lab, are using Netsweeper to block not just websites considered obscene in accordance to Sharia Law, but also political and news sites.

In these cases, users don't see regular messages informing the websites have been blocked, but are shown a "404" network error, according to the report—typically reserved for when a page cannot be found. The researchers believe this is a way for the Houthis to hide the fact that they are blocking critical content.

This censorship "adversely impacts human rights."

Combined with electrical outages that seem to have the goal of disrupt communications, the Houthis "have limited citizens' ability to communicate with their families, keep abreast of news related to local developments, or receive advance warning from Saudi-led coalition forces to leave their homes prior to airstrikes," the report reads.

Citizen Lab tested hundreds of websites from within Yemen, and found that most of the censored sites "appear to have been blocked because they publish reports and op-eds that are particularly explicit in criticising the Houthi rebels."

This censorship, the researchers argue, "adversely impacts human rights," and calls into question whether Netsweeper cares about freedom of expression and speech. Given that the company has previously provided censorship tools to governments in Pakistan and Somalia, Deibert said he wasn't surprised to find it present in Yemen too.

While Deibert doesn't believe Netsweeper has broken any local or international law, he noted that the United Nations has put out sanctions against the Houthis, so "certainly there's a question about infringing the spirit of the sanctions regime."

The Canadian government, which is trying to regulate the sale of technologies that could violate human rights, did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment.

On Oct. 9, Deibert sent a letter to Netsweeper, raising questions about their presence in Yemen. The company has yet to respond to it, according to Citizen Lab. It's worth noting that this is not the first time internet freedom activists raise questions about Netsweeper. The company has been providing services to Yemen, as well as other Middle East countries since 2011.

Ideally, Deibert added, the company will withdraw from Yemen and establish clear human rights policies and guidelines when choosing its customers, such as its predecessor in Yemen, Websense.

That "would show that the company cares about human rights," Deibert said. "[And] would probably encourage other companies to do the same."