EU to give secret anti-censorship software to human rights activists

The European Commission will give technological support to dissidents in oppressive regimes

The European Union plans to distribute new software to help human rights activists and dissidents in authoritarian regimes circumvent censorship.

Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes announced the "No Disconnect Strategy" on Monday to provide support to Internet users, bloggers and cyberactivists living in countries with poor track records on human rights.

Kroes said that the Arab Spring had been the wake-up call to governments around the world to recognize the power of the Internet, and social networking in particular, in building freedom and democracy.

"Enabling citizens of authoritarian countries to bypass surveillance and censorship measures depends on two basic conditions: availability of appropriate technologies (in particular software programs that can be installed on one's desktop computer, laptop, smart-phone or other device) and awareness, both of the techniques used by authoritarian regimes to spy on citizens and censor their communications, and of the appropriate counter-measures to use," explained the Commission.

The so-called Internet survival packs would include currently available technology as well as potential new software aimed specifically at allowing activists to use the Internet to get their message across while at the same time remaining safe from persecution. However, technology experts warned that "so much could go wrong with this."

One of the problems with the plans is the difficulty in getting technology into the hands of those who need it. The Commission was reluctant to say how this would be achieved as it believes it could potentially endanger those involved.

Kroes dismissed concerns about the software falling into the wrong hands, saying that in most cases cybercriminals are already using this technology and that the E.U. just wants to make sure it goes to "the good guys" as well.

The Commission refused to name which countries it sees as potential targets for this sort of intervention, saying it would be handled on a case-by-case basis. However, it is not unreasonable to assume that both Syria and Iran are on the list. More problematic are potential interventions in China and Russia where online state censorship is present to some degree.

The exact nature of the software to be distributed was not clarified, and free software activists said that any new software should be developed along open source principles.

Alongside the Internet survival packs, the Commission also plans to raise awareness among activists about the opportunities and risks of IT communication. It also wants to gather intelligence about what is happening "on the ground" in order to monitor the level of surveillance and censorship at a given time, in a given place.

Last Friday Commissioner Kroes warned technical surveillance companies that they should consider what use their technology will be put to when selling to authoritarian regimes. "Technology can support human rights, but we must also ensure it is not used against those struggling for freedom."

"When peaceful protests are being planned, connectivity is everything. Communications networks must stay switched on," said Kroes.

However despite the strategy's big aim of ensuring human rights, fundamental freedoms and democracy, the announcement was overshadowed by the Commissioner's decision to appoint Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a former German federal minister of Defense, and of Economics and Technology, as a special adviser to the project.

Guttenberg was disgraced in his home country after it was revealed he had plagiarized large sections of his doctoral thesis. Many felt that he was not the right man to represent freedom of the Internet and he was asked barbed questions such as whether the right to "copy and paste" was one which he would uphold. Others were concerned that his presence could undermine the validity of the strategy.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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