On December 11 of this year, Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch jointly released a press release calling for the EU to enact new controls on internet censorship and surveillance technologies that are regularly being built in Europe and shipped to authoritarian states all over the world. Cynthia Wong, a senior researcher on the internet and human rights at Human Rights Watch, said:
It is irresponsible and even negligent for companies to market powerful surveillance technologies to abusive governments without considering the human rights impact or whether it is even appropriate to provide those goods and services. European governments shouldn’t just leave these decisions to the private sector. They need to act to regulate the trade in these technologies.
The EU has already blocked the export of surveillance technology to Syria and Iran, but a step further to ban the export of all types of censorship and surveillance technology would be seen by many as a vital blow to authoritarianism and a step forward for free speech.
The press release has come just days before the collapse of the WCIT over fundamental differences between the nations regarding internet regulation. With the US, the UK, much of Europe and some key African nations all having refused to sign the new global telecoms treaty, it seems that the internet will remain as it is for now. Unfortunately, however, for people of many nations censorship and surveillance are the norm. With much of the technology that makes this possible originating in Europe, it does seem that the EU could do more to prevent human rights abuses in the form of internet censorship and surveillance.
The Wikileaks Spyfiles project, meanwhile, growing since December 2011, has shown that a huge number of US and European surveillance companies exist to service repressive regimes all around the world, with Blue Coat in the US and Ipoque in Germany both selling tools to the Chinese government to prevent dissidents from communicating and organising online. Companies such as Gamma in the UK and Amesys in France, meanwhile, have provided round-the-clock surveillance services to the former dictators of Egypt and Libya.
Other than these more sophisticated surveillance technologies, which violate human rights, most basic censorship is done by the ISPs of various nations, and done with legitimate Western software such as SmartFilter. This is the same type of software that can be purchased by schools, offices, and parents to prevent users accessing unsuitable material such as pornography or gambling sites. Users simply have to choose from among 91 categories of sites they wish to censor, and the filter will do the rest for them. The OpenNet Initiative, an organisation that exists to expose internet filtering, censorship, and surveillance all over the world, have found signs of these Western filtering specialists’ activity all over the Middle East and China. This is uniformly denied, however, with Secure Computing (who are now owned by McAfee), producers of SmartFilter, having gone so far as to accuse Iran of having obtained their software illegally.
It’s important to note, of course, that these same companies are just as willing to help out their own governments when it comes to internet censorship and surveillance. Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the Blackberry, were very willing to help the UK government find out who the main instigators of the London riots of 2011 were. They would likely have been just as happy to help the government with their plans to stop rioters from communicating via internet and blackberry messaging. The CIA, meanwhile, have been sold software that allows them to match phone signals and voice prints to individuals who can then be tracked. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the technology that has been developed by surveillance specialists all over the world.
Despite their vehement public support of internet freedom and free speech, Western nations are perhaps not the advocates of liberal internet access and human rights they would have us believe. Let’s not forget Google’s transparency report, which let us know that many of the requests they receive to censor information come from precisely these supposed advocates of an ‘open’ internet. It seems that Western societies are happy to outwardly condemn the processes of overt surveillance and censorship used by nations such as Iran, China, and Russia, while using these same processes themselves when they deem it necessary, and at the same time providing the technology that makes them possible.
Preventing the export of such tools from the EU would by no means prevent internet censorship or surveillance. There are undoubtedly many local experts who would be happy to take on the job (or US companies to step in and fill the void). It would be an important gesture, however, making it clear that the EU is not willing to facilitate processes that violate human rights. It may only be a small step forward, but it would be a step forward nonetheless for freedom of expression and human rights.