Surveillance tech companies should not sell to despots, EU says

And U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warns surveillance companies that their products could be used to breach human rights

Surveillance technology companies have a moral obligation not to sell to repressive regimes, said Europe's Digital Agenda Commissioner on Friday. Her views were echoed by the U.S. secretary of state who said that companies cannot pretend they don't know what their technology is used for in countries like Syria and Iran.

"Every actor, public and private, must take up their responsibilities. Companies should be transparent about the technology they are selling in certain countries. If technology is used by certain repressive governments to identify innocent citizens and put their life or freedom in danger, we ought to know," said European Commissioner Neelie Kroes, speaking at the iFreedom conference on Internet freedom in The Hague, Netherlands.

Kroes is concerned that despotic governments can use information and communication technologies as tools of surveillance and repression and as means to track and spy on those defending human rights.

"In such areas, we can react with legal measures such as sanctions, as we have done in the case of Syria. But, for me, this is not just a legal issue, it is a moral issue. I think it is high time for the industry to decide where they stand, and what they are going to do. If not as a moral issue, then as an issue of corporate reputation: being known for selling despots the tools of their repression is, to say the least, bad PR," she said, according to a transcript of her speech.

However in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Tatiana Lucas, world program director for think-tank Intelligence Support Systems, said this issue "makes U.S. manufacturers gun-shy about developing, and eventually exporting, anything that can remotely be used to support government surveillance."

"We expect that most countries outside the U.S. and Western Europe will begin to place intercept mandates on social networks, especially following the Arab Spring. This would give U.S. companies an opportunity to develop such tools and thus create jobs," Lucas said. "Additionally, in some countries U.S. companies are already refusing to provide intercept support and are banned from doing business. But Chinese equivalents, with lawful-intercept features, crop up in their absence. Like it or not, many countries will adopt the Chinese model, leaving U.S. companies and job growth behind."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also speaking at the conference in The Hague, took issue with this point of view. "When companies sell surveillance equipment to the security agency of Syria or Iran, there can be no doubt it will be used to violate rights," she said, according to a transcript of her speech.

"In China, several dozen companies signed a pledge in October, committing to strengthen their 'self-management, self-restraint, and strict self-discipline.' Now, if they were talking about fiscal responsibility, we might all agree. But they were talking about offering web-based services to the Chinese people, which is code for getting in line with the government's tight control over the internet," Clinton continued. "When ideas are blocked, information deleted, conversations stifled, and people constrained in their choices, the internet is diminished for all of us."

However, echoing a statement from the Council of Europe on Thursday, both Kroes and Clinton said that ICT can also help fight for human rights: "Across the world, information and communications technology can support freedom of speech and enable the peaceful transition to democracy. It is clear that, in particular, mobile phones, online social networks and microblogging sites have an incredibly important role to play," Kroes said.

On Thursday the Council of Europe expressed concern that politically motivated pressure on Internet platforms and online service providers could undermine the rights to freedom of expression and association. "Although privately operated independent media, whistleblowers, human right defenders and dissidents play a significant part in facilitating debate on issues of public interest; in some cases, they can fulfill the role of a social watchdog," said the council's Committee of Ministers.

On Monday the commissioner will unveil a "No Disconnect Strategy" with Europe's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Self regulation is likely to play a part in this strategy. Kroes singled out the Global Network Initiative (GNI) as a possible model. GNI is a multi-stakeholder group of companies that work together "to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector."

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