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Digital Dictators

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Are repression and surveillance really the antidote to terrorism? Or are they the surest bet for authoritarian leaders struggling to maintain their grip on power amid an onslaught of digital technologies that facilitate the free flow of information?

The debate over demands by a growing list of countries, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, India, and Indonesia, for access to encrypted data flows sent via BlackBerry has largely revolved around issues of national security. But while some of these concerns may be valid, they also mask a much more sinister motive. Egypt is the latest authoritarian government to announce it would ban data services unless provided access to data flows within their borders. The country joins a growing list that includes the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia, which are also among the most repressive and least free countries in the world.

There is a fundamental difference between companies providing limited access to personal data to democratic countries, where rule of law protects basic human rights and legal safeguards prevent this data from being misused, and providing unfettered access to such information to countries that lack safeguards that provide such protections.

The failure by BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIM) and other companies to stand up to efforts by non-democratic regimes to boost surveillance will limit free expression, of that there is no doubt. The lucrative UAE and Saudi markets, at 194% and 166% mobile penetration rates, and Egypt with 79 percent growth rate, are too tantalizing to pass up. Companies cannot be expected to stand up to repressive countries on their own, they need political support from their governments to proactively challenge digital dictators.

Given the history of repression, censorship, and internet restrictions in some of these countries, the idea that enhanced surveillance capabilities will only be used on potential terrorists seems far-fetched. They are merely expanding their tyranny to the digital realm.

Conveniently, the UAE announcement came just days after a group of young activists sought to organize a peaceful protest against rising oil prices via BlackBerry Messenger. Saudi Arabia, which regularly arrests bloggers, journalists and would-be activists, quickly followed suit. Egypt, which will have elections in the fall and is home to some of the most ardent digital activists, wants to cut deals with RIM like Saudi Arabia and India have that would allow it access to subscriber date.Text messaging has become a key tool for digital activists to organize, coordinate and publicize their efforts. The power of mobile phones to empower reformers has been seen over and over again, from Iran's disputed 2009 election, to Burma's Saffron revolution, to the so-called Cedar Revolution in Lebanon. These activists, more than terrorism, strike fear into the hearts of most authoritarian regimes.

Attempts by the United States government to gain unfettered access to electronic communication without proper warrants or justification has resulted in public outcry, lawsuits and judicial decisions that such broad surveillance was illegal. Freedom of information laws protect the public's right to know and safeguard against governmental abuse. An independent judiciary guarantees constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure and the right to free expression. This accountability and transparency are built into democratic systems.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE lack even the most basic constitutional protections that functioning democracies pledge to their citizens and residents.

Some have argued that governments rather than companies govern the airwaves and the Internet. But the fact is that many multinational corporations have economies larger than countries, and without access to their services and technology countries would be unable to compete in the globalized world.

Companies like Canadian-based RIM, and Cisco, the US-based network giant, must take a stand for the rights and values of the countries in which they started and grew, and without whom they would never have been able to start up or grow into the innovative powerhouses they have become. And the countries have in turn benefited from the taxes and innovations provided by these companies. There is a reason that few, if any, of the 21st centuries best technologies, most successful companies and most pioneering enterprises have emerged from authoritarian countries.

What the debate about national security and the 21st century buzz word "terrorism" misses is that undemocratic and authoritarian countries monitor the communications of their residents in order to repress dissent, control political expression and surveil peaceful activists. Without safeguards such as independent legal and regulatory agencies, an independent judiciary, due process, accountable security and policing bodies, separation of powers, freedom of information laws and other safeguards to protect peoples' rights, countries cannot be trusted to use their surveillance capabilities within the limits proscribed by law. The United States, Canada and other democracies must take a stand against these digital dictators.

Courtney C. Radsch is Freedom House's Freedom of Expression Officer.