back to article When tyrants pull on their jackboots to stamp out free speech online, they reach for... er, a Canadian software biz?

Netsweeper, a maker of online-content-filtering software in Canada, has been called out for allowing its tools to aid internet censorship. Citizen Lab, a security and human rights research group run out of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, on Wednesday published a report on the use of Netsweeper …

  1. JassMan Silver badge


    Netsweeper, contacted by Citizen Lab in advance of the publication of its report, said in a letter that it cannot be blamed for how its software is configured.

    In other news, a manufacturer of cluster bombs said it could not be blamed for their use on civilians.

    "Netsweeper cannot prevent an end-user from manually overriding its software," the company said. "This a dilemma shared by every major developer of IT solutions including globally renowned corporations that make the internet work.".

    "This a dilemma shared by every major developer of IT solutions including globally renowned corporations that break the internet" FTFY

    1. kain preacher Silver badge

      Re: Scumbags

      Except cluster bombs are now banned.

      1. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

        Re: Scumbags

        Not for outlaws.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Scumbags

        Except cluster bombs are now banned.

        But by no means every country has signed up to that convention; for example the United States hasn't, alongside the less than inspiring company of China, Russia, India, Korea, Pakistan, Brazil, Iran, ...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Scumbags

          United States stopped using cluster bombs. Not for humanitarian reasons but some times the bomblets would not exploded and could be used as IEDs. They learned this in vietnam.

    2. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge

      Re: Scumbags

      In other news, a manufacturer of cluster bombs said it could not be blamed for their use on civilians.

      It's the perennial question; are manufacturers, sellers, those who allow them to operate, equally, more, or less, to blame than the people who use such things?

      Pragmatically, the chain has to broken as close to the top as it can be. At the manufacturing end there will always be someone else wiling to step into their shoes. That's a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.

      Deibert isn't wrong, but he's chosen to pick on the wrong target.

    3. horriblicious

      Re: Scumbags

      Well now there is a valid comparison - cluster bombs and software. We cannot be far from a Godwin's Law violation at this point.

  2. Anonymous Coward

    There is a discussion on Hacker News

    There is a discussion on Hacker News, it's the only other tech site I find of value ..

  3. Nick Kew Silver badge

    Slippery slope

    Do we condemn suppliers to Blighty's own Great Firewall?

    How about suppliers of open source software, that explicitly doesn't distinguish good from bad users?

    It's not such a great leap from there to attacking, say, encryption software and its developers.

  4. 89724905708169238590784I93056703497430967093434677347864785234986359235564854495684561564545876 Bronze badge

    Some legit torrent sites...

    ... are already blocked in the UK... and they're only using torrents to avoid hosting fees.

  5. DNTP

    There must be an important distinction

    Between producing a piece of software, or technology, that has legitimate useful purpose but can be used to cause harm in the wrong hands, versus a company that develops software specifically for the purposes of bad actors. Encryption and Tor are obvious examples of the former, but anything can be misused- the North Korean government has its own Linux distribution, which presumably they are not using in a purpose consistent with human rights- and no one is calling for Torvald's head because of that.

    I'm not actually sure which is the case here with Netsweeper. While in an ideal world we would accept that open access to information is a basic human right, there does seem to be a legitimate use for private parties supplying access to their employees or students to be able to limit content for productivity or safety, and perhaps Netsweeper is simply meeting that need.

  6. Peter2 Silver badge

    The software, the report says, is being used to block Google searches for LGBTQ-related keywords and to block non-pornographic websites by mischaracterizing them as sexually explicit.

    Mmm. A hundred years ago in our own society a lady might have considered much of our currently accepted clothing to be sexually explicit. What the victorians considered indecent is rather different to the 1950's, which is different to today.

    What a really, really conservative muslim majority country might consider sexually explicit today might differ from our cultures current standards (although perfectly comprehensible to our society in the Victorian era).

    Simply put a country where woman are required to be completely covered (ie; Burka) might reasonably be expected to consider many websites pornographic, such as swimwear catalouges from the obvious end to pictures of women wearing western casualwear showing (any) bare skin at the less obvious. Is this what they are considering censorship, or are they blocking news services etc on the basis of being sexually explicit?

    Given that the main thrust of their complaint is that they are blocking "LGBTQ-related keywords" it sounds a lot more like the former than the latter. Given that homeosexuality is punishable by death in some of these countries it's hardly surprising that they are blocking some pages on this topic, is it? And even if they didn't block western sites and people in those countries followed what (for citizens of first world countries) is good advice then what might happen...?

    This sounds more like activism for activism's sake than a sustained deliberate effort to help the people concerned. If they want to publish things to those countries to change their culture then looking at what's going on in Saudi Arabia and many other countries with the under 30's then i'd say that things are going tolerably well as it is at the moment despite filtering.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      looking at what's going on in Saudi Arabia and many other countries with the under 30's then i'd say that things are going tolerably well as it is at the moment despite filtering.

      Tolerably well if the young people's ambition is to live meekly in a medieval society under primitive, backward values imposed through heavy handed security services at the command of hypocritical old, rich bastards, whose idea of "reform" has involved 48 state-conducted beheadings so far this year.

      That's not "tolerably well" in my book.

  7. mark l 2 Silver badge

    There are a lot of legitimate uses for web content filtering software and other suppliers other that Netsweeper so it seems a bit cruel to target them.

    I used to work for a local council who used to to Websense to filter the internet browsing of the staff, you could set it up to block certain keywords in searches as well as groups of websites based on category, eg social media sites could be blanket banned. Or you could manually add say twitter to the white list and block every other social media site.

    You wouldn't believe what some staff would be searching from their work computers when you started checking the logs, especially staff who were working late or at weekends when not many others were around.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      You are right. They offer a tool. Indeed they can do more to prevent misuse of such a powerful weapon, but it's ultimately the buyer that has to behave properly.

      Evildoers use Microsoft Office to ask ransoms. Criminals may use encrypted IM services. And so on... The (relavtive) anonymity of the Internet does not help.

  8. Peter2 Silver badge

    That's not "tolerably well" in my book.

    What are you expecting, to wake up tommorow morning and find that they have moved from theocracy to democracy overnight without taking any intermediate steps? How many hundreds of years did that take our culture?

    Even assuming you did wake up tommorow to find the Crown Prince overreaching massively the lunchtime news would be about him being deposed by mullahs in a manner strikingly similar to the Iranian revolution and the Shah. Would having another situation like Iran with the Shah help anybody?

    As it is, a younger person is in charge of Saudi Arabia with a long term plan to modernise. Some of the older people have been forcibly retired. The security services are being held under a tighter reign. Cinema's are being opened and western films shown legally. Woman are being allowed to drive.

    Personally, I think that things are going the right way in a gradual way, and when the older people opposing the changes retire/die off then change is going to not only continue, but accelerate in line with what the populace consent to.

    Yeah, it's going to take decades. But if you can illustrate a well throught out plan to change the place faster then i'm certain their crown prince would be interested...

    “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”

  9. hapticz

    uniqueness is a virtue

    taking 100,000 years to emerge from a primal society of upright hominids to a diffuse and varied clanish tribes, each with its own tailored behavior constraints, is not easily disrupted. expecting another, violently defended region, to accept at face value what another region of peoples deems 'acceptable' is quite naive, humans dont like to change if it means relearning a completely different way of life. pecking orders remain intact, even as 'ownership' of areas passes on from one generation to the next. in addition to the logarythmic increase in populations demanding the same priviledge of what was once plentiful and abundant resources, and theres no end to squabbling and elbowing amongst the hordes for the 'leaders' to settle. its only going to get worse, even as the communication networks increase the interface surface and their melting together.

  10. Tempest8008

    Right to information?

    No wonder International Law is ignored when it's this damn fuzzy.

    They say, "Access to information is a human right..."

    WHAT?! So every human has a right to every piece of information on the planet?

    Since when? I don't even have a "right" to know what my friend ate for breakfast if she doesn't want to tell me, let alone proprietary intellectual property or manufacturing processes.

    And by that logic every human should have full access to a device that can access that information, the power to run it, and the education to be able to use it.

    Talk about pie-in-the-sky claptrap.

    If the people in these countries want to be able to access the Internet unfettered and uncensored then I'm afraid they're going to have to fight for those everyone else.

    No "right" comes free.


    1. horriblicious

      Re: Right to information?

      Well if they are breaking international law then the international policeman should arrest them and try and convict them before the international court. Oh wait, there is no international police? Not everyone agrees with the ICC as a valid court? Is there a codified book of international law?

      Gee wiz, that could be a problem when people keep saying someone is breaking "international law" - as if that really meant something.

      1. harmjschoonhoven

        Re: Right to information?

        @horriblicious: The title of Ch. 3 of Jeffrey Carr's Inside Cyber Warfare PDF is The Legal Status of Cyber Warefare. It mentions

        Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaties

        The Antarctic Treaty System and Space Law



        The Law of Armed Conflict

        Moreover we have the Geneva Conventions.

    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Right to information?

      They say, "Access to information is a human right..."

      WHAT?! So every human has a right to every piece of information on the planet?

      How you got from the former claim to the latter is a mystery to me.

      There are many people who claim that, for example, access to drinking water is a human right. Do you think they mean every person should be allowed to consume every drop of potable water? Clearly that would be tricky.

      Besides the obvious semantic nonsense of your interpretation, no sensible political theorist has ever claimed that any essential right applies in every case.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I would

    imagine that clown that runs Canada (J.T) is rubbing his hands with glee.

    Dear Canadians, that clown will be the death of your culture if you don't get him out of office.

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