Censorship tech company Sandvine’s human rights “commitments” are too little too late

Access Now welcomes news that Sandvine, a California-based filtering and surveillance tech company with roots in Canada, will no longer do business with the government of Belarus. The announcement on September 15 follows activism by the Belarusian diaspora, Access Now and Citizen Lab, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, and journalist reports showing Sandvine’s equipment is being used by the Lukashenko regime to shut down the internet and repress protests.

“Ending work with Belarus government is a positive step, but this is far from enough. The harm is already done,” said Natalia Krapiva, Tech Legal Counsel at Access Now. “Now Sandvine needs to address past violations and take clear steps to prevent them in the future. This involves more than ethics board window dressing — including meaningful transparency and due diligence measures. The time has come to hold companies accountable for selling these oppressive technologies to dictators in the first place.”

“Apologies and Monday-morning quarterbacking by Sandvine do not excuse the company for its decision to pursue deals with the murderous Lukashenko regime,” said Peter Micek, General Counsel at Access Now. “Both Sandvine and its owner Francisco Partners knowingly entered this market, and continue supplying governments with the means to shut down networks and surveil dissidents. We demand accountability, through state and federal regulation as well as meaningful, human rights-centered commitments and disclosures by the firms.”

Despite Sandvine having revoked its end-user license agreement with the Belarus government, Sandvine’s equipment continues to empower the Lukashenko regime to block access to websites and information online amid its campaign of brutal repression against protesters. Reports indicate that the Lukashenko government has now also ordered telecom service providers to limit access to mobile networks, further restricting access to vital communication channels and information online, and making it difficult to share documentation of security force attacks against protesters.

Sandvine sold its censorship technology to the Lukashenko regime earlier this year alongside growing protests against the president’s announcement he would run for a sixth term, extending a 26-year hold on authoritarian control. Opposition figures were arrested, and Lukashenko said his government would outlaw protests until after the presidential election in August and ensure that no revolution would occur. In its successful sales pitch to Belarus, Sandvine highlighted the capacity of its tools to blacklist up to 150 million websites, along with other forms of censorship and surveillance. 

According to Bloomberg, Sandvine’s Chief Technology Officer Alexander Haväng previously said even though Belarus may have been using Sandvine’s equipment for blocking, they do not consider the internet, and access to specific websites, as “part of human rights.” He added that Sandvine did not want “to play world police” by telling the Belarusian government what to do. However, after the public outcry, Sandvine hastily changed their position, admitting that the technology was in fact used to suppress the free flow of information, which is a human right violation. 

Withdrawing its customer support after abuses have already occurred is a necessary but deeply insufficient gesture from a company whose investors have a long track record of failing to protect human rights. Companies have a responsibility to redress the human rights impacts they caused or contributed to, as well as to take adequate measures for prevention and mitigation of potential future harms.