Alan Harnum

Who Uses Netsweeper? - A Non-Comprehensive Survey of GTA Public Libraries

28 May 2017

I have been meaning for some months to write an update to my previous posts on the use of the Netsweeper filtering software by public libraries:

For refreshers on the Netsweeper story in general:

Summarizing, Netsweeper is a Waterloo-based company that makes internet filtering software. Their product is used by libraries and schools in Canada, including my hometown library (and, full disclosure, former employer), Toronto Public Library.

It is also, as documented by the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab research group over the years, a significant player in the business of overseas internet censorship in countries with repressive attitudes to intellectual freedom.

I have written previously as to my opinion on whether the use of Netsweeper's product is in keeping with the espoused values of libraries (summary: I don't think it is, in a manner less debatable than some other debates about whether certain uses of technology align with library values):

Technology choices are not neutral, and organizations such as libraries that align themselves with principles of intellectual freedom should hold themselves to a high standard in dealing with technology that has censorious applications.

My original engagement with the issue was because I recalled Netsweeper being used at Toronto Public Library, but I was curious as to how widespread the usage was in the public library world.

To that end, I sent an inquiry in November 2016 to fourteen public libraries in the GTA, and a follow-up inquiry in February 2017 to those who did not reply to my original inquiry offering them a chance to do so before I commented publicly.

The inquiry emails are reproduced at the bottom of this post for disclosure purposes.

GTA Public Library Responses to the "Do You Use Netsweeper?" Inquiry

The list below is based on replies to my November 2016 inquiries and February 2017 inquiries, and my original correspondence with Toronto Public Library; I will endeavour to correct any mistakes or outdated information when I become aware of it.

  1. Ajax - Does not use Netsweeper
  2. Brampton - Does not use Netsweeper
  3. Burlington - Does not use Netsweeper
  4. Guelph - Does not use Netsweeper
  5. Hamilton - Does not use Netsweeper
  6. Kingston - Does not use Netsweeper
  7. London - Did not reply, but appears to have used product at one point based on this document
  8. Markham - Uses Netsweeper
  9. Pickering - Does not use Netsweeper
  10. Oshawa - Does not use Netsweeper
  11. Ottawa - Does not use Netsweeper
  12. Toronto - Uses Netsweeper
  13. Vaughan - Does not use Netsweeper
  14. Waterloo - Did not reply, but appears to have used product at one point based on this document
  15. Whitby - Does not use Netsweeper

What do libraries use instead of Netsweeper? A variety of products, or no filtering at all. Only one identified a specifically open source product (Squid Guard) if they did filter.

What Next?

I will be sending another inquiry shortly to Toronto Public Library about this issue. My previous communications have been requests for information and have been answered (quickly and professionally) in that regard; I will now be writing the City Librarian's office directly to suggest that they review the library's usage of the software and consider using something else.

My position remains (I think) fairly straightforward on this issue. Stated succinctly as I can:

  1. Libraries champion values of free speech, access to information and other principles of intellectual freedom, not only in their own locales, but in the world generally. See, for example, this 2010 news release from Toronto Public Library condemning censorship of a Rohinton Mistry book in India.
  2. In the current era, the need to defend intellectual freedom extends into networked spaces. Libraries themselves have acknowledged this in a variety of ways, such as Toronto Public Library's recent Digital Privacy Initiative.
  3. Per those first two points, libraries should therefore avoid purchasing their filtering software from companies who do business overseas actively facilitating government repression of intellectual freedom. Netsweeper appears, based on the work of Citizen Lab and others, to fall into this category.

Inquiry Emails

For sake of disclosure, my original inquiry emails to GTA public libraries on Netwseeper are reproduced below.

Original (November 2016)

Good day,

I am writing to inquire about the Internet filtering technology (if any) used by the library.

Specifically, I would like to know if the library makes use of the Netsweeper filtering technology.

This inquiry is part of personal research into the use of Netsweeper by libraries in Canada in light of recent stories about the use of Netsweeper overseas as part of general Internet censorship by state authorities, such as this one:

Thank you for any information you can provide.

Follow-Up (February 2017)

Good day,

I am writing as a follow-up to a question sent in November 2016, to which I did not receive a reply from the library.

I expect to be publicly commenting on this issue shortly and wanted to give the library a chance to reply before that time. I will otherwise categorize it as "did not reply to inquiry". My original question is reproduced below.