American Technology Is Used to Censor the Web From Algeria to Uzbekistan

Sandvine’s Technology Used for Web Censoring in More Than a Dozen Nations

In Jordan, Sandvine Inc.’s equipment was used to censor an LGBTQ website. Egypt’s government relied on Sandvine equipment to block access to independent news sites. In Azerbaijan, it was deployed for a social media blackout, current and former employees say.

Last month, U.S. -based Sandvine, which is owned by the private equity firm Francisco Partners,  said it would stop selling its equipment in Belarus after Bloomberg News reported that it was used to censor the internet during a crucial election. In explaining its decision, the company said it abhors “the use of technology to suppress the free flow of information resulting in human rights violations.”

But the company’s equipment — which is often used to manage the flow of network traffic —  has also been used to censor the internet in more than a dozen countries in recent years,  according to three current, five former employees and company documents.  Those countries include Algeria, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Eritrea, Jordan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Sudan, Thailand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan, according to Sandvine sales records with government agencies and network operators — both private and government-controlled —  seen by Bloomberg News.

In those countries, Sandvine’s website blocking feature has enabled politically motivated filtering of news and social media websites and messaging apps, according to the current and former Sandvine employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential transactions.  In addition, Sandvine has continued to provide updates and technical expertise to many of those customers, according to the employees and the documents.

Sandvine declined to comment on specific deals with countries or network providers. But it said in a written statement that its technology to manage internet traffic, which incorporates blocking and filtering technology, is “used to protect networks and subscribers every day from billions of malicious internet transactions linked to illicit and illegal activities, such as child pornography, human trafficking, terrorism and the spread of malware.’' As such, the equipment is ubiquitous and “a critical component of a reliable and secure internet.”

“It is not intended to thwart human rights or block the broad, free flow of information,’’ the company’s statement said.  “In fact, it is designed to do the opposite — to ensure that citizens have high quality and better access to information worldwide.’’

On the company’s website,  Lyndon Cantor, its chief executive officer, said, “Sandvine takes the use of our technology seriously.  I am committed to ensuring that Sandvine maintains the highest level of ethics and integrity in our activities in the marketplace.”

In a previous statement explaining its decision last month to cancel its deal in Belarus, the company said, “
This is a human rights violation, and it has triggered the automatic termination of our end user license agreement,’’ according to the company’s statement. 

San Francisco-based Francisco Partners didn’t return messages seeking comment, nor did Brian Decker or Andrew Kowal, deal partners at the firm who list Sandvine among their investments, according to the firm’s website.  

A representative for the Algerian government said it doesn’t comment on its contracts. Bloomberg News reached out to the government agency or telecommunications company in each of the other countries for comment, but none responded. In addition, Bloomberg News attempted to reach media contacts for those countries at their embassies in Washington but only one responded.  The Embassy of Afghanistan referred questions to its president’s office, which wasn’t immediately available for comment.

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat of Illinois, called on Sandvine to reassess its deals with countries where its equipment could be used to crack down on internet freedom. “Sandvine recently released an encouraging statement that it had terminated its license agreement” with Belarus, Durbin said in a statement to Bloomberg News. “My hope is that Sandvine will use this experience to also review similar contracts with other nations whose autocratic leaders may try to inappropriately use this technology for political censorship. Such a move would be an important further step in the right direction.”

Sandvine makes equipment that can be used to manage massive flows of internet data as it passes in and out of countries. The equipment, known as “deep packet inspection” technology, can block spam and viruses. But it can also be deployed to blacklist millions of websites and messaging apps so that they cannot be accessed, according to the company’s documents.

Since 2017, Sandvine workers have raised concerns about the potential misuse of its technology, according to the current and former staffers. Three of the five former employees said they had left the company in part because of their opposition to its sales to countries with authoritarian governments. 

In Belarus, Sandvine sold its equipment to a state-controlled internet agency, which used the technology in August to block social media platforms, messaging apps and news websites amid nationwide protests over a disputed presidential election, Bloomberg reported on Aug 28. Sandvine announced on Sept. 15 that it would no longer work with Belarus, citing human rights violations.

American Technology Is Used to Censor the Web From Algeria to Uzbekistan

“The technology itself is fairly neutral, but if you provide it to anti-democratic countries it can cause a lot of harm,” said a senior Sandvine employee with knowledge of the company’s global sales. “Some of us have raised complaints about the customers we are working with, but we don’t feel they’ve been taken on board. The company’s priority is to sell products.”

In early September, for instance, Sandvine worked with Delta Telecom, a leading internet provider in Azerbaijan, to “urgently” install a system to block livestream videos from YouTube, Facebook,and Instagram, according to the Sandvine documents.  A representative for Delta Telecom didn't respond to messages seeking comment.

The social media blackout came last week after deadly clashes with Armenia. As a result, people in Azerbaijan couldn’t reach websites including Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, Twitter, Zoom and Skype, according to the internet monitoring organization Netblocks.

In Jordan, according to one current and two former employees, Sandvine’s equipment has enabled repeated government-ordered internet shutdowns of Facebook, WhatsApp and censorship of hundreds of websites, including the Arab LGBTQ magazine MyKali.

In Eritrea, a small country in sub-Saharan Africa that human rights groups have labeled one of the most repressive in the world, Sandvine provided the government with technology this year for the stated purpose of blocking websites, according to documents seen by Bloomberg News and two current employees familiar with the matter. Independent news organizations are banned in Eritrea, and the country’s government has a history of limiting or disrupting internet access, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In Thailand, Sandvine’s equipment has been used to block websites critical of the country’s royal family, while in Egypt and Uzbekistan, it has prevented people from reading independent news websites, according to two current and three former employees. 

Researchers from the Qurium Media Foundation, a digital rights group, recently found that Sandvine’s equipment was being used to help the Egyptian government block more than 600 websites, including 100 news and media websites such as Al Manassa, a popular citizen journalism platform.

“For the past decade we have been helping independent media in countries like Egypt, Azerbaijan, Jordan and Uzbekistan,” said Tord Lundström, chief technology officer at the foundation. “In all these countries operators deploy Sandvine to block multiple independent media websites. Sandvine is fully aware of it as our reports are in the public domain.”

In an internal conference call with employees on Sept. 10, Sandvine executives explained that they didn’t consider blocking internet traffic to be a human rights violation, which meant that use of the equipment to blacklist websites wasn’t an issue the company’s business ethics committee would consider ahead of a deal. A recording of the call was shared with Bloomberg.

“We don’t want to play world police,” Chief Technical Officer Alexander Havang, said on the call. “We believe that each sovereign country should be allowed to set their own policy on what is allowed and what is not allowed in that country.”

After a public backlash over its work in Belarus, however, Sandvine reversed course and stated that use of its products to “thwart the free flow of information during the Belarus election” amounted to a human rights violation. The company said it would no longer work with Belarus and was “exploring ways to enhance our products to reduce the risk of misuse.”

The revelations about Sandvine’s work in Belarus prompted criticism from Senators Durbin and Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, and led to Belarusian activists staging protests in six cities in the U.S. and Canada. Meanwhile, human rights group Access Now called on California’s attorney general to investigate the company and Francisco Partners for potential legal violations, citing alleged due diligence and disclosure failures and deceptive and unfair business practices.

“We’re asking California’s highest legal authority to account for human rights violations directly linked to companies incorporated in his jurisdiction,” said Peter Micek, general counsel at Access Now. “Tech companies like Sandvine and investors like Francisco Partners have recklessly – and foreseeably – dealt their cards with dictators and spies.” The California Attorney General’s Office declined to comment. 

Sandvine, originally founded in Canada, was acquired by Francisco Partners in 2017 in a deal worth $444 million. Francisco Partners then merged Sandvine with Procera Networks, a company founded in Sweden and acquired by the private equity firm in 2015. Today, Sandvine maintains offices in the U.S., Canada, Sweden, Malaysia, Japan, India and the United Arab Emirates, according to its website.

The current and former Sandvine employees said the direction and culture of the company changed after the Francisco Partners takeover. Sandvine was restructured at the management level, and the new leadership adopted a more top-down leadership style, with more pressure to make sales and increase growth, according to the employees. The company, which had once sold its products mainly to telecommunications providers, began increasingly selling its equipment to government agencies, the employees said. 

Sandvine’s equipment was conceived first as a product to help cellphone and internet providers manage the data flowing across their networks – to prioritize some kinds of traffic over others and to filter out spam or other malicious data. Don Bowman, a founder and former chief technology officer of Sandvine, said in an interview that he always worried that the company’s technology could be dangerous in the hands of authoritarian governments. 

“That’s why we were always careful about the features we implemented and about who we worked with,” said Bowman, who left the company in 2017 after the Francisco Partners acquisition. He added that he was “sad” to see that Sandvine, under Francisco Partners’ ownership, was now selling the technology to countries such as Belarus.

In an internal company newsletter circulated in August, Sandvine announced that it was expanding its work with governments and would be branching out for the first time into the surveillance technology market, selling its deep packet inspection systems along with software that could help governments and law enforcement agencies target criminals.

According to documents reviewed by Bloomberg News, Sandvine provided countries including Egypt, Uzbekistan, Russia and Afghanistan with technology that can be used to log information about people’s website-browsing histories. In May of this year, it approved a deal to provide the Algerian government with equipment capable of recording data on the online activity of as many as 10 million internet users and has been pursuing a similar contract with Kenya’s national intelligence agency, according to two employees familiar with that work.  Kenya's intelligence agency didn't respond to a request for comment. 

In the August newsletter, Haväng, Sandvine’s chief technical officer, wrote that the company didn’t have the ability to help governments read the contents of encrypted communications, such as messages sent through WhatsApp. But it could “show who’s talking to who, for how long, and we can try to discover online anonymous identities who’ve uploaded incriminating content online.”

“We’ll probably get plenty of flack for it,” Haväng wrote. “But with a responsible approach, we’re doing what we can to give crime fighting a chance.” Haväng didn't respond to messages seeking comment.

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