Canadian company Netsweeper, which makes internet filtering software, has backed down to pressure from LGBTQ+ activists who complained its product was censoring LGBTQ+ content in 10 countries.

According to a report from The Citizen Lab, a category called ‘Alternative Lifestyles’ was offered to Netsweeper’s clients in countries such as Afghanistan, Bahrain, India, Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Yemen to effectively suppress LGBTQ material online. Its clients include telecoms providers and government organizations in countries with a long history of censorship and human rights violations.

For example, campaigning groups All Out and R3D found that the tool was also being used to miscategorize civil rights, sexual identity, AIDS and HIV prevention information sites, along with other online sex education content  as ‘pornography.’ The report found evidence that Netsweeper was not just filtering content, but was also being exploited to block media sites in Yemen and religious content in Bahrain.

“We identified a pattern of mischaracterization and/or over blocking involving the use of Netsweeper’s systems that may have serious human rights implications, including blocking Google searches for keywords related to LGBTQ identities and blocking non-pornographic websites in various countries on the basis of an apparent miscategorization of these sites as ‘Pornography,’” a spokesperson for The Citizen Lab said.

Following pressure from activists, Netsweeper’s Chief Technology Officer, Lou Erdelyi, confirmed that the company was removing the Alternative Lifestyles category. Erdelyi told Motherboard:

“As of December 25th, 2018, Netsweeper no longer has a category titled LGBTQ+, nor does it block such content. We do not have a category called ‘Alternative Lifestyles’ any longer, nor do we categorize or make public any classifications that discriminate against a particular group of people.”

Speaking to Motherboard, All Out welcomed the news:

“Online spaces are crucially important to find support, to get to know each other, and try to find some relief from a very hostile and dangerous environment that they find themselves living in,” All Out’s spokesperson said.

The high stakes of such censorship was highlighted by recent news from Egypt where homosexuality is not criminalized, despite increasing crackdowns on gay rights. TV presenter Mohamed al-Ghiety was prosecuted for ‘promoting homosexuality’ and sentenced to 12-months hard labour simply for interviewing a male gay sex worker on his show for privately-owned LTC TV.

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