Censorship company drops bogus lawsuit against researchers who outed them

Netsweeper sells "internet filtering technology" -- a tool that spies on users' internet traffic and censors some of what they see -- that is used by governments to control their populations, including the government of Yemen, which uses it to block its citizens' access to material critical of its policies.

In 2015, the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab (previously) published a characteristically excellent, careful report on Netsweeper's role in Yemeni censorship. Netsweeper -- who had declined to comment on the report prior to its publication, despite being given a chance to do so -- retaliated by filing a punitive defamation suit under Canada's notoriously censorship-friendly libel laws.

But Ontario has recently enacted an Anti-SLAPP statute called the Protection of Public Participation Act, which made this kind of suit much harder to make stick. It seems unlikely to be a coincidence that Netsweeper has dropped its legal action, which sought $3M in "general damages"; $500K in "aggravated damages"; and "unascertained special damages."

Netwsweeper isn't the first cyber-arms dealer to contemplate retaliation against Citizen Lab; the dump of internal emails from the disgraced surveillance/censorship company Hacking Team showed that they consulted with a law firm over a plan to "hit [Citizen Lab] hard." But Netsweeper does have the distinction of being the first company to be dumb enough to actually file suit against Citizen Lab.

One point bears underscoring: it is an indisputable fact that Citizen Lab tried to obtain and report Netsweeper’s side of the story. Indeed, we have always welcomed company engagement with us and the public at large in frank dialogue about issues of business and human rights. We sent a letter by email directly to Netsweeper on October 9, 2015. In that letter we informed Netsweeper of our findings, and presented a list of questions. We noted: “We plan to publish a report reflecting our research on October 20, 2015. We would appreciate a response to this letter from your company as soon as possible, which we commit to publish in full alongside our research report.”

Netsweeper never replied.

We expect that Citizen Lab research will continue to generate strong reaction from companies and other stakeholders that are the focus of our reports. The best way we can mitigate legal and other risk is to continue to do what we are doing: careful, responsible, peer-reviewed, evidence-based research. We will continue to investigate Netsweeper and other companies implicated in Internet censorship and surveillance, and we will continue to give those companies a chance to respond to our findings, and publish their responses, alongside our reports.


On Research in the Public Interest

[Ron Deibert/Citizen Lab]