Today, the EU imposed sanctions on 3 members of Syria's electronic army: a new and important step, but what about the corporate actors? While both the United States and the EU have imposed sanctions on Syria and Iran, the use of Western made technologies to crack down on people flourishes in many countries across the world.
Western companies play an essential role in tracking down, censoring and spying on dissidents. There is massive wiretapping of emails and social media accounts. It is high time to ensure these injustices end.
Activists in several countries in the Middle East have shared their experiences. During interrogations and imprisonment, they were confronted with transcripts of their own text messages, phone calls and emails. Under the pressure of torture and this evidence, it is much more difficult to deny or to withhold names of other human rights defenders.
It is perhaps not surprising that in repressive regimes, security services and state owned companies engage in systematic crackdowns like this. What is shocking is the instruments and knowhow continue to be supplied by the West.
We hardly know exactly which ICT tools and services are involved. Companies refuse to give insights, citing confidentiality of customers. They are often working with a number of spin-offs, and are incorporated in tax havens.
In the EU, individual member states are responsible for the control on exports. They refuse to create an EU wide level playing field. This fragmentation leads to different enforcement levels of existing laws, and a lack of hard consequences when breaches remain unreported. The American, Swedish and Dutch governments have each presented internet freedom as a priority. I doubt however, whether they can guarantee that none of their companies is facilitating human rights violations. As we speak, a team of Italians is involved in building a hyper modern monitoring centre for Bashar al Assad, which will give him 100% control of all (mobile) internet and phone traffic. I am determined to ensure the EU will prevent this centre from becoming operational.
Some of the involved companies sell to consumers on our own markets, and have a reputation to lose. Nokia Siemens Networks came under fire in 2008 for selling a mobile network to Iran. Vodafone was involved with shutting down the internet and phone systems in Egypt while continuing to send only propaganda text messages from the government. More often however companies operate below the radar. While these technologies can be as effective as weapons, there is a complete lack of transparency and oversight.
Products and services vary from viruses that steal passwords to technologies which can turn on a microphone or camera remotely. In a country where there is the rule of law, the police can help find a missing child through a GPS signal. This would amount to so called lawful interception. Iran uses the same signal to identify when more than ten people assemble on a street corner, or to track down dissidents in hiding.
While the struggle for human rights has moved online, policy is lagging behind. Imagine the outrage at a book burning. Yet, the current development of a 'halal internet' in Iran, which allows the regime to entirely control access to information - censorship at the click of the mouse - is met with silence.
I will never propagate over-regulation, but the EU and the US need to take measures to protect people and to remain credible. Companies will have to be forced to be more transparent: who are they selling which equipment and knowledge to? Currently, in Europe, there is a voluntary licensing scheme. Checks happen mostly in retrospect, after the export took place. It does not need any arguing to underline that this mechanism is flawed. Additionally, customs controls fall short of intercepting the transfer of technology, which can happen at the click of a mouse today. We need common standards, on the EU level, but preferably between the EU and the US, and more broadly. Companies should be able to ask advice confidentially, before they receive an export license, but protecting their interest in (for example) a bidding process. And it is not only technical sides that need to be taken into account, but also whether or not there is the rule of law in the country to which the ICT's would be exported.
Europe and America will lose their credibility as defenders of human rights, when our own companies are undermining our strategic interest and policies. Trade and foreign policy can go hand in hand. And there is a benefit for companies in fostering free societies, in which more speech leads to more emails, surfing and phone calls.
The transitions in North-Africa and the Middle-East have proven that we need to stand with the populations, not their suppressors. Let EU and US based companies choose the side of people as well!