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Watchdog criticizes feds over internet filtering tools

Waterloo Region Record with Shannon Dea 02 August 2018

Canada co-chairs an international body dedicated to protecting the rights of gays and lesbians at the same time that it supports a Waterloo company that helps oppressive governments censor LGBTQ+ content from the web, says an internet watchdog group.

Beginning Sunday, the Equal Rights Coalition holds a three-day conference in Vancouver expected to attract delegates from 39 countries that joined the intergovernmental group when it was launched in 2016. Last year, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced that Canada would co-chair the organization along with Chile for two years.

In making the announcement in June 2017, Freeland said: “Everyone deserves to live free of persecution and discrimination — no matter who they are or whom they love. Today, we, Canada and Chile, reaffirm our commitment to unequivocally defend LGBTQ2 rights as human rights. We will never stop fighting for a safer, more equal and more just world for all people.”

Not so fast, says Ron Deibert, head of the internet watchdog group Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.

Earlier this year, Deibert issued a report called Planet Netsweeper. It detailed how the Waterloo company’s internet filtering technology is used by some governments to block access to LGBTQ+ content. In advance of next week’s equal rights conference, Deibert repeated his calls for Ottawa to regulate the export of technologies like those sold by Netsweeper.

Deibert said no one in Ottawa has responded to his letters or research findings.

“I am disappointed but remain hopeful that by bringing what is clearly a contradiction in words and deeds to the Canadian government, we can encourage policy-makers to act,” he said.

“The fact of the matter is this one issue is part of a much larger threat to internet openness worldwide that is squarely at odds with Canada’s foreign policy,” said Deibert. “It’s time to step up and do the right thing.”

Export regulations can help ensure Canadian-made technology does not contribute to the violation of human rights worldwide, said Deibert. Ottawa has supported Netsweeper’s exports through loan credits, financing and in other ways, he said.

Netsweeper, Freeland’s office and the prime minister’ special adviser on LGBTQ+ issues, Randy Boissonnault, did not respond to requests for interviews.

The Vancouver conference is an opportunity to develop corporate social responsibility agreements for companies like Netsweeper, said Shannon Dea, a University of Waterloo philosophy professor whose research includes issues around gender and sex.

“And to name and shame those companies that do not sign on,” said Dea.

Governments currently regulate many exports, and internet filtering technology could be regulated as well, said Aimée Morrison, a UW professor who researches the internet and humanities.

Suppressing information that is useful to minority communities such as lesbians, gays and transgendered people should not be allowed, she said.

“In many ways, what we are enforcing online with these filtering tools is a kind of digital segregation, and digital erasure of whole categories of people,” said Morrison.

“If you cannot find any information online about the LGBTQ2S communities, it sends a pretty strong signal about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.”

Just because the discrimination happens on computers does not make it less real, she said.