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Syrian government, Hezbollah websites hosted in Canada, U.S., says Citizen Lab

Organizations are subject to Canadian sanctions

U of T's Ron Deibert, head of Citizen Lab, discusses websites hosted in Canada that represent groups sanctioned by the federal government. (Photo by Jon Horvatin)

The University of Toronto's Citizen Lab has found Canadian web servers are hosting websites connected to the Syrian government – including the website for Addounia TV, a television station accused of inciting violence against Syrian people.

“Our findings peel back the layers of a complex, highly nuanced, and often seamy world of web hosting,” said  Professor Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab and Canada Centre for Global Security Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

In a report released Nov. 17, Citizen Lab found that Canada-based servers host websites for more than a dozen ministries of the Syrian government. They also host the website for the Hezbullah media arm Al-Manar.

As the Canadian government has sanctioned all three groups, the findings raise important legal questions, said Deibert.

“That Syrian government websites, including a Syrian state-backed television station known to be inciting violence, are hosted in Canada is at minimum in contradiction to Canada’s stated foreign policy,” said Deibert, “and possibly material support to a regime that is now globally condemned for its repression and violence.”

Canada classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Canadian sanctions against the repressive Syrian government include an asset freeze and a prohibition against dealing with the regime or its supporters.

“We encourage governments, civil society, and the private sector to seriously consider how best to handle the expanding responsibilities of web hosting companies and how due process and proper accountability mechanisms can be normalized in ways that protect free speech and access to information, while avoiding support for human rights abuses and repressive regimes,” Deibert said.

Summary of Citizen Lab’s main findings:
• Websites of the Syrian government, including the Ministries of Culture,Transport, and others, are hosted on Canada-based web servers through intermediary companies, one of which, called “Platinum Incorporated,” advertises that it has co-location servers in Canada.

• The Syrian TV station Addounia TV, which is sanctioned by Canada and the European Union for inciting violence against Syrian citizens, uses Canada-based web servers to host its website.

• The website for Al-Manar -- the official media arm of the Lebanese political party, Hezbollah -- is hosted on Canada- and U.S.-based web servers and employs Canada-based web servers to stream its TV broadcast globally. Al-Manar satellite broadcasts have been banned by the US, France, Spain, and Germany as well as the European Union. The United States includes Al-Manar on its specially designated nationals list, a list of entities with which U.S. persons are generally prohibited from dealing, and the assets of which are blocked. Canada currently classifies Hezbullah as a terrorist organization.

• There are legal questions concerning the provision of web hosting services to each of these organizations. As the Syrian government, Addounia TV, and Hezbollah are all subject to Canadian sanctions, services provided by Canada-based hosting providers to these entities may fall within the scope of the sanctions.

• Any consideration of the removal of an organization’s website from web hosting services, however, must be treated as a potential infringement on freedom of speech and access to information, with due process and proper accountability mechanisms clearly articulated and followed.

The full report can be accessed here.