Canadian Web filtering foreign policy

The recent question of whether Canada should take a stand on Canadian Web content filtering technologies sold to other countries that may use it to bar controversial political and religious material is a “a very narrow tightrope” to walk, said one analyst.

It’s safe to say very few Canadian companies would be able to do business beyond Canada if the government took a hardline approach at supporting only political ideals similar to those found in Canada, said Carmi Levy, Toronto-based analyst.

“But at the same time, if the government takes a completely hands-off position, it runs the risk of Canadian companies essentially rubber-stamping the activities of autocratic regimes,” said Levy. “Either way, there’s no way to win, here.”

The recent incident that gives rise to this conversation happened in June when Canadian government representatives were present at an event where Netsweeper Inc., a Guelph, Ont.-based developer of Web content filtering software, gave a green technology award to Du, a telco in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and also a customer of its technology.

The presence of Canadian government officials may send the message of support for countries that restrict citizen access to Web content it deems controversial. And, said Levy, “Until every country on the planet adheres to the same fundamentals of freedom and democracy, governments everywhere will be challenged to keep these apparently opposing ideals in balance.”

Levy said the Canadian government has largely taken a case-by-case approach given there is no ideal solution. “It’s fair to say that Canada’s political and economic interests would be well-served by increased dialogue on this front, as the lack of a framework raises the likelihood of inconsistencies going forward,” said Levy.

Russell McOrmond, policy coordinator with The Canadian Association for Open Source based in Ottawa, said the issue on the table is really the “inconsistent positioning” that Canada and the U.S. take on the matter of Web content filtering.

McOrmond said when a country, such as China, takes a stand on what it deems controversial, Canada takes the opposing view and considers it wrong. “But,” he added, “when our own governments want to monitor our own citizens without due process, that’s considered a good thing.”

He’s referring to proposed changes to legislation that would require telcos to disclose personal information, such as name and address, of service subscribers to law enforcement in the absence of a warrant.

“In other words, exactly the same things that we would be highly critical of if the Chinese government were doing it,” said McOrmond of the proposed legislative changes. “I think there’s a very subjective, almost hypocritical way that we are treating the issue.”

As for the technology—Web content filtering—McOrmond said there are, like anything, as many beneficial applications for it as there are distasteful ones.

But the issue here, said McOrmond, is not about the UAE, specifically, nor is it about foreign policy, so “I think we should start at home and then worry what we’re doing foreign.”

Follow Kathleen Lau on Twitter: @KathleenLau

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