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Netsweeper’s silence on its reported role in Pakistan’s internet filtering programme

[Note: Our coverage of FinFisher technology in Pakistan - made by British/German company Gamma International - is here]

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre writes to Canadian Government and Netsweeper partners

Latest addition to this page: "Sweeping Rights Aside: Ottawa, Pakistan and Netsweeper," David Petrasek in Center for International Policy Studies blog, 25 October 2013

In June 2013 Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto reported that technology developed by the Canadian company Netsweeper is “being implemented in Pakistan…for the purposes of political and social filtering.”  This is despite an international campaign in 2012 that called on companies – including Netsweeper – not to bid for a tender by the Pakistan Government for a national URL-filtering system.  The campaign was led by the Pakistan-based human rights organization, Bolo Bhi.

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre invited Netsweeper to provide a public response to the initial campaign (in March 2012) and then the Citizen Lab report (in June 2013).  In neither instance did it respond: not to us, nor to other approaches from civil society and the media. 

We are disappointed that Netsweeper has refused to respond in the face of such significant concerns, i.e. that it is reportedly undermining the internationally-recognised right to freedom of expression.  We wrote to the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and to Netsweeper's global business partners raising this issue with them.  The Canadian Government's response and comments by some of the partners are below.  Of course, if Netsweeper does respond in future, we will add its full statement to our website.

How other companies reacted regarding internet filtering in Pakistan

Netsweeper’s silence contrasts with five of the companies that we had contacted at the time of Bolo Bhi’s initial campaign.  Cisco, McAfee, Sandvine, Verizon and Websense all committed publicly not to bid for the tender in Pakistan.  And Websense went a step further by calling on other firms not to bid: “we call on other technology providers to also do the right thing for the citizens of Pakistan and refuse to submit a proposal for this contract.” 

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre regularly invites companies to respond when concerns are raised about their activities: we have approached companies for responses over 1,500 times, and over 70% have responded.

Reaction from civil society in Pakistan

On the Citizen Lab findings, Shahzad Ahmad of the Pakistani human rights group Bytes For All said in a Toronto Star article: “We have just gone through the first ever democratic transition to a new government that won power through the vote…No company, from Canada or anywhere, should be helping the government introduce a kill switch on information.”

Bolo Bhi said in a statement: “Netsweeper’s apparent decision to allegedly sell the filtering products to Pakistan, despite civil society advocacy groups informing them that the technology will have terrible repercussions for the country, reflects a disregard for civil liberties and fundamental human rights.”

Response from Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs

On 2 August 2013 we wrote a letter to the Canadian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade about this case.  We said that we would “welcome any details that you can provide as to steps the Canadian Government is taking to urge Netsweeper to respond publicly to the human rights concerns that have been raised.” 

We referred to government duties under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.  Principle 2 says that “States should set out clearly the expectation that all business enterprises domiciled in their territory and/or jurisdiction respect human rights throughout their operations.”   

The Canadian Government's response is here.

Bolo Bhi itself wrote to the High Commission of Canada in Pakistan and also received a response.  Bolo Bhi says on its website, “The response from the Canadian Government doesn’t provide details on measures it could undertake to seek answers from Netsweeper.  In our response [to the govt.] we have further requested the Canadian Government to assist us in seeking information on Netsweeper’s presence in Pakistan.”

In his Oct 25 blog post "Sweeping Rights Aside: Ottawa, Pakistan and Netsweeper," David Petrasek of the University of Ottawa said: "The silence of the Canadian government in this case is shameful, and provides a cover for companies to ignore human rights concerns. For if the government refuses to comment, or even to note that it has expressed its concern, it implicitly legitimizes the insouciance of company officials."

Letter to Netsweeper’s corporate partners

We also wrote to the CEOs of Netsweeper’s "Technology & Global Partners" as listed on its website.  The partners we contacted are Alcatel-Lucent, IBM, Intel, Kajeet, Lenovo, Nokia Siemens, Opera and Sandvine.  We said that we wanted to ensure their company is aware of this issue and give them opportunity to comment if they wish to do so.

In our letter we referred to UN Guiding Principle 13b.  It says companies are required to: “[S]eek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.”  The Principles define a company’s “business relationships” as including: “relationships with business partners, entities in its value chain, and other non-State or State entity directly linked to its business operations, products or services.”

We will post any comments received from the companies here as we receive them.

Alcatel-Lucent responded that it will provide clarification regarding its partnership with Netsweeper in due course.  It also provided information on its policy and activities on human rights (freedom of expression and privacy).

Intel said that it no longer has any formal business relationship with Netsweeper.  It referred to its Human Rights Principles and the Human Rights section of its 2012 CSR Report.

Sandvine sent the following response:

“While Netsweeper has listed us as a technology partner on their website, we select our technology partners on a customer-by-customer basis, as needs dictate.  We typically engage Netsweeper as a technology partner when customers require a Parental Controls solution as part of a bid.

As you correctly pointed out, Sandvine replied to your initial enquiry last year by stating that we did not participate in the February 2012 public tender by the Government of Pakistan – information that we can reiterate today.  As a result, we did not engage any technology partners and cannot know which technology vendors participated, whether the tender resulted in any solutions being deployed, nor which vendors may have been selected for what role.”

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