Sandvine, Francisco Partners facing mounting pressure for accountability around censorship tools

Following the revelations that censorship equipment sold by Sandvine facilitated internet shutdowns in Belarus, Access Now joined forces with the Committee to Protect Journalists, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and digital security experts Ron Deibert and Christopher Parsons to send a letter calling on California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to look into the activities of Sandvine and its owners Francisco Partners, as well as other relevant owners and investors, for potential legal violations arising out of their contracts with Belarus, such as due diligence and disclosure failures, deceptive and unfair business practices, and Sandvine’s possible contravention of U.S. sanctions against Belarus. 

“We are now 45 days into the peaceful protests against the disputed elections in Belarus, during which Belarusian people have been subjected to grave human rights violations, including severe beatings, torture, and forced disappearances,” said Natalia Krapiva, Tech Legal Counsel at Access Now. “These violations are made possible by Sandvine’s technology, which helps the government to silence protesters, prevent detained and kidnapped persons from communicating about their whereabouts, and stop journalists from reporting on these issues. Sandvine and other companies involved in this censorship must be held accountable.” 

While Attorney General Becerra considers undertaking an investigation, we are reiterating our call, because, despite Sandvine’s announcement that it has cut ties with Belarus, the censorship equipment still remains in the government’s possession and abuses already committed with the help of this technology remain unaddressed. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has relayed calls from Access Now for both Sandvine and Francisco Partners to address the use of their tools in Belarus to disrupt access to the internet during an election and widespread protest. Sandvine pointed to its general PR statement, and Francisco Partners did not respond. Members of the Belarusian diaspora have also protested outside the Francisco Partners San Francisco office and in five more cities, demanding the companies stop all transactions with the Belarus government, recall the censorship equipment, and act to prevent abuses from happening in the future.  

“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 upcoming public offering of surveillance purveyor Palantir puts the urgency to policymakers: Control exports to governments with a track record of violating human rights, put teeth into human rights due diligence rules, and isolate and punish bad actors at state and federal levels.”

To that end, the E.U. Parliament, Commission, and Council met on September 22 to discuss revisions to the E.U. dual-use export control regulations. Despite Sandvine being a company with U.S. and Canadian roots, EU policy makers discussed the company’s involvement in Belarus during the negotiations, and are now considering explicitly including DPI technology in the updated regulation. Access Now supports this development, but reiterates our earlier call for additional measures to be included to prevent abuses, such as appropriate human rights standards, mandatory human rights impact assessment in due diligence processes, a functional mechanism for catch-all and the E.U. control list, and mandatory transparency and disclosure criteria for export licensing by Member States.

“Companies must be held accountable for conducting thorough and meaningful human rights impact assessments when they export surveillance or spyware technologies, especially given the extent to which they can be weaponized against journalists and others who seek to hold governments to account,” said Courtney C. Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I doubt this will be the last time we see a company involved in egregious abuses like those in Belarus, so we urge prompt action by the authorities to impose safeguards that will ultimately help protect fundamental rights, like press freedom.” 

A recent investigation by Qurium and Egyptian media website Al Manassa revealed that Sandvine’s Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology is also being used in Egypt, where more than 600 websites remain blocked since 2017, more than 100 of those being media and news websites.