Canada looks at website hosting for the Syrian government

Story highlights

  • Canadian companies may be hosting more than a dozen Syrian government websites
  • Canada has not enacted a broad embargo against doing business with Syria
  • Thorny issues of censorship may be raised in attempt to censure content hosted by servers
As countries around the world sharpen their sanctions against Syria, Canadian police are probing whether Canadian companies are helping the regime by web hosting more than a dozen of its government websites.
"We have asked the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to investigate the hosting of these Syrian websites to ensure our sanctions are respected. Our government will continue to work with our allies to bring diplomatic pressure to bear, including bringing forth stronger sanctions," wrote Andrew MacDougall, a representative of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in an e-mail to CNN.
A report authored by The Citizen Lab, a cyber-security research center at the University of Toronto, claims that more than a dozen Syrian government websites, including those of the ministries of Culture and Transport, are being hosted by Canadian web servers.
IWeb, one of the Canadian firms identified in the report, writes on its website that it is taking the allegations seriously but adds: "Canada has enacted targeted sanctions against certain Syrian government entities and individuals. Canada has not enacted a broad embargo against doing business with Syria. The Citizen Lab report identified a number of Syrian government entities for which the internet address resolves directly or indirectly to iWeb. With one exception, none of the listed entities are subject to Canadian sanctions. The exception is Addunia TV which was listed as a sanctioned entity on October 3, 2011."
In response to the allegations, the U.S. State Department underscored its position last week by emphasizing that American companies are prohibited from providing web-hosting or any other service to the Syrian government.
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Still, as the report itself points out, thorny issues of censorship may be raised in any attempt to censure content hosted by servers around the world.
The report entitled, "The Canadian Connection: An Investigation of Syrian Government and Hezbollah Web Hosting in Canada", cautions governments that; "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."
"It opens up a really interesting question of whether governments in fact have any legal jurisdiction over these kinds of virtual presences and what it would mean if other governments started taking action in the way that potentially the Canadian government could take action following up on sanctions against the Syrian regime," says Rafal Rohozinski, a senior fellow at the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto.
Rohozinski is also CEO of SecDev, a Canadian company creating and distributing surveillance-busting programs that are now allowing citizens of Syria and Iran to access Western sources of information, or communicate and protest online, without detection.
He suggests that there could even be an intelligence advantage for Western governments if these regimes continue having their websites hosted by outside entities.