A bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday would stop the sale of surveillance technologies to repressive regimes by American companies.
Sponsored by Representative Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, the measure would prohibit the export of hardware and software that can be used to block and track communications sent over the Internet. In addition, it would require companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges to report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission how they conduct due diligence on human rights issues, as well as how customer information is shared with repressive countries.
The export of surveillance gear to such countries as Iran and Syria has come under increasing scrutiny by human rights groups and government officials. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on technology companies in a Dec. 8 speech to make “good decisions” about how and whether to do business involving nations that may use the equipment or software against their citizens.
“In recent months, we’ve seen cases where companies, products, and services were used as tools of oppression,” Clinton said at the Freedom Online Conference in The Hague, Netherlands. “When companies sell surveillance equipment to the security agency of Syria or Iran or, in past times, Qaddafi, there can be no doubt it will be used to violate rights.”
Bloomberg News has reported this year on Western companies’ sales of surveillance systems to repressive governments, including Iran, Syria and Bahrain.
Crackdowns on pro-democracy protests in the Middle East underscored how technology by companies such as Stockholm-based Ericsson AB, NetApp Inc. of Sunnyvale, California, and Munich- based Siemens AG has been used by governments to monitor and arrest dissidents.
“The Internet in many countries has been transformed from a freedom plaza to Big Brother’s best friend,” Smith said during a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights.
“Many of these technologies are being made in the U.S.A.,” he said. “Sadly, many of them are also being exported, every day, to some of the most unsavory governments in the world, whose use of them is far from legitimate.”
Smith introduced his bill, called the Global Online Freedom Act of 2011, after the European Union on Dec. 2 adopted new sanctions on Syria, restricting the supply of technology that the EU measure said was “primarily for use in the monitoring or interception” of Internet or phone communications.
The U.K. is examining whether to ban the sale of mobile- phone surveillance software to Iran and Syria, Business Minister Judith Wilcox said Nov. 28.
“Stronger action is needed,” Daniel Calingaert, vice president for policy at Freedom House in Washington, D.C., said at the hearing in Washington. “The abysmal human rights records of the governments that have received Western censorship and surveillance technology is cause for serious concern.”
--With assistance from Nicole Gaouette in The Hague. Editors: Anne Reifenberg, Marcia Myers
The reporter on this story: Ben Elgin in San Francisco
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