More than a dozen Syrian government websites are being hosted on Canada-based servers, according to a new research report that raises questions about the effectiveness of international sanctions against a regime accused of ongoing crimes against humanity.
Websites belonging to the Syrian ministries of transport and culture, as well as a television station called Addounia TV connected to the government and accused of inciting violence against the Syrian people, are among the sites hosted on Canadian servers, says a new report by the Citizen Lab and Canada Centre for Global Security Studies.
The revelation comes as the Syrian government continues a brutal crackdown on its citizens – a crackdown that has prompted several countries, including Canada, to impose sanctions on the regime headed by Bashar al-Assad.
In the case of Canada, those sanctions include "an asset freeze and dealings prohibition on additional members of the regime and those who provide it with support."
However, the Citizen Lab report notes that several Syrian government sites have secured Web hosting services in Canada through intermediary companies, including a Damascus-based software firm called Platinum Inc.
Most of the sites are hosted by a Montreal-based company called iWeb. In addition to the government and Addounia TV sites, the report found that Al-Manar, the media arm of Hezbollah, also uses iWeb services to stream its video broadcasts globally. The Canadian government classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
"There is a question as to whether [the Web hosting]contradicts Canada's foreign strategy with regards to Syria – in other words, is it against the law?" said Ronald Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab. "At the very least it suggests Canadians … need a better dialogue around cyber-security than has taken place."
On two previous occasions, in 2006 and 2008, it was revealed that entities with ties to Hezbollah were hosting Web content using iWeb's servers. In both cases, the company eventually took down the sites.
Contacted about the new Citizen Lab report, iWeb responded to The Globe and Mail Wednesday evening saying the company never discloses any information about the identity of its clients unless compelled to do so by law.
Asked whether iWeb had any plans to stop hosting the sites listed in the Citizen Lab report, an iWeb spokesman said the company is "always collaborating with competent authorities whenever formal complaints are made."
A representative from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade said the department could not prepare a response to The Globe and Mail's questions on the matter until Thursday.
Although international sanctions are not new policy tools, their effectiveness in the digital realm remains unclear. Earlier this month, the Citizen Lab released a report outlining the use of Internet filtering tools developed by U.S.-based Blue Coat systems in Syria and Burma (the use of these tools by Syria would appear to run afoul of U.S. sanctions against the country).
On Industry Canada's corporate profile page for iWeb, the company's "geographic markets" entry lists almost every country on Earth, including Syria.
Mr. Deibert said cases such as iWeb's are further complicated by the potential for overreaction in situations that don't necessarily warrant the removal of websites.
"Web hosting companies flinch at the first sign of controversy, and big corporations have used this as way to create a chilling effect and get content taken down, and that needs to be rectified," he said. "But of equal concern is content that is linked to repression. Government has to give some direction here."