More than two dozen websites belonging to the government of Syria are being hosted by servers in the United States, Canada and Germany, according to a report by Canadian researchers.
The report released Thursday said the operations raise legal questions because they may violate Canadian and U.S. sanctions against Syria, which has used police and military forces for the past eight months to put down a popular uprising.
Ronald Deibert, the director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, said several Syrian websites _ including the ministries of finance, economy and trade, and religious affairs _ are hosted on U.S.-based servers.
Overall, the report said, 17 Syrian government websites are hosted by Canadian providers, seven are hosted by U.S. providers and two by German companies.
"We had a moral obligation to report this given the violence in Syria," Deibert said in a telephone interview.
One of the U.S-based companies, called SoftLayer, is listed as hosting the ministries of finance and economy and trade as well as the General Commission for Competition and Antimonoply. SoftLayer did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
iWeb, a Montreal-based hosting company, is listed as hosting several Syrian government sites. iWeb said in a statement that it's a complex issue for the web hosting industry and said they support any initiative that helps bring clarity to the issue.
The report noted that in Canada and the U.S., a Web host typically has not been held liable for such content if the company responds to requests that it be taken down.
Canada's foreign affairs department said it has asked the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to investigate the allegations.
"We have asked the RCMP to investigate this report to ensure our sanctions are respected," spokeswoman Aliya Mawani said late Thursday.
Deibert said it was unclear whether Web hosting violates U.S. and Canadian sanctions.
"There's definitely a question. Cyberspace governance is immature and underdeveloped," Deibert said. "Sanctions are designed around a world much less fluid and material than cyberspace is. I think if you are going to put named entities on a sanctions list that government needs to provide some guidance to the private sector about what that means."
Deibert also cautioned that any removal of a website from a Web hosting service should also be treated as a potential infringement on freedom of speech and access to information.
The report also said Syrian state television station Addounia TV, which has been sanctioned by Canada and the European Union for inciting violence against Syrian citizens, uses Canadian-based Web servers to host its website.
"Addounia TV to me is probably the most serious because it is a television station that has been sanctioned for inciting violence," Deibert said.
Deibert noted that Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general who headed the U.N. peacekeeping force during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, regretted not pulling the plug on a radio station that incited genocide in Rwanda.
The United Nations estimates more than 3,500 people have been killed in Syria since last March, when President Bashar Assad began clamping down on Syrians who spoke out against his regime.
The report also says a website for the official media arm of Lebanese political party Hezbollah, is hosted on Canadian and U.S. based servers and uses Canadian servers to stream its TV broadcast globally. Canada classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.