A federal agency banned public employees from accessing news stories at Blacklock’s Reporter via government internet servers, documents confirm. Confidential records show Shared Services Canada imposed the government-wide blackout on website access by hundreds of thousands of staff. Files on the blacklisting were obtained through Access To Information.
Shared Services Canada offered no explanation. A 218-page file detailing the ban is heavily censored and conceals email messages in which Shared Services staff discuss the action in messages headed, “Block Domain: Blacklocks.ca”.
“This is outrageous conduct,” said Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan, who noted the newsroom first learned of the blacklisting from individual subscribers in federal departments who were unable to access news content. Shared Services Canada manages telecom services for 43 departments.
No reason is given for the blacklisting. Blacklock’s is an accredited member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery covering bills, regulations, Access to Information and federal courts.
“It’s astonishing to see Canada join the short list of countries that forbid public employees from accessing internet news sites,” Doan said. “This is not only Orwellian, it appears to breach the government’s own guidelines on workplace internet use.”
Cabinet’s official Policy On Acceptable Network & Device Use adopted in 2013 permits federal employees to “search for information online” and “share links to professional activities and events or interesting and relevant articles”. The Policy also details “unacceptable use” of government computers including access to “hate propaganda”; “pornography”; “obscenity”; and “illegal gambling”.
Doan said, “Surely Shared Services Canada can tell the difference between Blacklock’s and a jihadist website or crime syndicate”; “No rational agency would blacklist an accredited news site in the name of security or crime prevention”. Doan noted the Blacklock’s ban appeared to be revoked September 9, the same day the publication filed a formal request for records from Shared Services Canada.
‘Way Ahead There, Boss Man’
Documents indicate the government’s central internet provider blocks numerous domain sites. Shared Services Canada would not explain how many sites it has blacklisted, what their names are, or how many others are accredited news sites. “We do not comment on the specifics of methods used to protect the Government of Canada’s IT infrastructure,” said Marie-Helene Rouillard, a Shared Services spokesperson.
Access To Information records show the department’s IT security division blocked the website blacklocks.ca from last August 22, sending an email alert to numerous agencies including the Department of Industry, Correctional Service of Canada, tax department and others. “The email went to all contacts we have on record,” Dave Tough, a Shared Services security analyst, writes in one August 25 email; “Way ahead of you there, boss-man.”
Tough rated the alert of “high importance”, and indicated several IT staff monitored the news site. Blacklock’s was also cited in an August 27 Cyber Brief distributed to telecom staff across all government agencies; “Cyber Briefs are publications released by the Government of Canada with the goal of preventing widespread incidents,” the memo reads. All references to Blacklock’s were lengthy and censored.
Tough did not reply to repeated requests for an interview. “At no time did our newsroom pose a security threat to the nation,” said Publisher Doan.
Under cabinet’s Policy on workplace computer use, more than 200,000 federal employees are permitted to “watch online broadcasts of work-related content” and “keep up-to-date with news and current events”, according to Examples Of Acceptable Use. Other permitted activities include “subscribe to web feeds”; “check the weather forecast”; “confirm bus schedule information”; “read or contribute to online forums”; and “visit social networking sites to connect with family and friends”.
Forbidden computer activities include using workplace computers to “make public comments about government policies”; “engage in political activity”; or “breach the duty of loyalty requirement for public servants”.