Web “security” firms doesn’t mean helping autocrats feel secure

Surely companies that assist repressive regimes in their censorship should pay a legal and ethical price in their home country? This is an argument in my book The Blogging Revolution (just re-released in an updated edition). This story is from Guelph Mercury:

A Guelph tech firm with a reputation for making tools to control information abroad is now tightening communications at home.

After giving several media interviews during its rapid rise in the burgeoning internet security sector, Netsweeper is now refusing to speak to reporters.

“There’s no good conversation for us to have,” company spokesperson Scott O’Neill told the Toronto Star in June. Requests for comment by the Guelph Mercury and The Canadian Press have also been turned down.

Netsweeper also recently rejected a meeting request by Guelph MP Frank Valeriote.

“I wanted to meet with them. I wanted to learn more about everything they did, more than I was able to glean from their website and news articles,” he said. “I’m disappointed they didn’t want to meet with me.”

The silence follows allegations the company provides censorship software to Middle Eastern clients who actively suppress free speech and access to information.

According to researchers from Citizen Lab, a web censorship watchdog at the Munk School of Global Affairs, at the University of Toronto, Netsweeper currently provides filtering tools to state-owned telecommunications companies in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

All three clients use the software to block political, religious and same-sex content, Citizen Lab has reported. In its promotional material, Netsweeper boasts it can block websites “based on social, religious or political ideals.”

What does any of this mean for Guelph? Some say not much.

“It is not the City’s practice to comment on the business and contractual relationships of private companies,” Peter Cartwright, general manager of economic development and tourism, said. “If the company has broken any provincial or federal laws, these matters would be have to be addressed by those levels of government.”

Others disagree.

“I think as citizens of the local community, the country and the world, we have multiple obligations,” Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab, said.

“It’s imperative that citizens of Guelph think of themselves as custodians of what takes place in Guelph and is projected internationally.”