Reporters Without Borders

Companies that cooperate with dictatorships must be sanctioned

Companies that cooperate with dictatorships must be sanctioned

Published on Friday 2 September 2011.
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Reporters Without Borders condemns the criminal cooperation that exists between many western companies, especially those operating in the new technology area, and authoritarian regimes.

“These companies no longer have any reservations about collaborating with criminal governments,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said. “Providing dictatorships with communication equipment or confidential data is irresponsible. A total of 122 bloggers and netizens are currently detained worldwide. The companies that work with these governments are complicit and responsible for the fate of these detainees. Financial sanctions should be imposed on companies collaborating with governments that jail bloggers or censor the Internet.

“Without financial sanctions, these practices will not stop. Companies are not above the law. There are courts that try illicit practices by companies. Why shouldn’t they try the criminal responsibility of companies that collaborate with regimes that are guilty of crimes? Provision should be made at the national level for penalizing such collaboration, and referral to the International Criminal Court should be considered when companies become the accomplices to war crime by dictators. After being concerned about impunity for dictators, the world should now be worrying about impunity for companies.

“Human lives are at stake. Must they be sacrificed for the sake of profits? The leaders of international companies operating in the new technology domain, especially telecommunications surveillance, in Libya, Syria, Burma, China, Turkmenistan and other authoritarian counties should think about their responsibility. Their tools, their equipment and their know-how are being used for criminal purposes.”

These technologies are at the heart of a new war. Emails can now be intercepted, Skype calls can be recorded, webcams can be turned on remotely and Internet content can be modified without the users knowing. Reporters Without Borders urges Internet users to be much more careful.

Reporters Without Borders reiterates the need for legislation banning cooperation between companies and dictatorships on the lines of the proposed Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA) in the United States and its European equivalent. Like the EU regulations on trade in products that could be used for “capital punishment, torture or other cruel treatment,” there is now a need to introduce international regulations on the provision of technology that threaten cyber-citizens, to control the export of certain technologies, to create a monitoring body that is independent of governments and to have dissuasive sanctions ready. Companies should also have legal and official recourse against measures in countries like China or Iran that force them to obstruct the free flow of information.

The GOFA, a bill submitted to the US Congress in 2006 and still awaiting adoption, aims to prevent US companies from “cooperating with repressive governments in transforming the Internet into a tool of censorship and surveillance.” The European equivalent, submitted to the European Parliament on 17 July 2008 by Dutch MEP Jules Maaten of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), aims to forestall online censorship possibilities and to regulate the potentially repressive activities of European Internet companies. It would create an Office of Global Internet Freedom with the job of combating online censorship by the most repressive governments and protecting the personal data of Internet users.

These measures are now urgent and necessary. Examples of companies cooperating with such governments are on the increase. Referring in May to Microsoft’s acquisition of the Internet telephony company Skype, Microsoft Russia president Nikolay Pryanishnikov said he was ready to provide its source code to the Russian security services. Microsoft is nonetheless a leading member of the Global Network Initiative, an alliance that brings private-sector companies and investment funds together with organizations that defend freedoms.

Many other companies that have shown no interest in the GNI’s principles seem ready to stop at nothing to conquer new markets. Bull, Nokia, BlueCoat, Netfirms and Cisco have all yielded to the lure of profits. Reporters Without Borders has compiled the following summary of their repressive practices.

Libya: Bull (France) and Boeing (Unites States)

Amesys, a subsidiary of the French computer company Bull, reportedly provided Col. Muammar Gaddafi with Internet surveillance equipment, including a system called Eagle that can intercept email sent via Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo! and monitor MSN and AIM instant messaging. According to the Wall Street Journal, several files containing transcripts of phone and chat conversations between government opponents were found in Libyan intelligence agency computers.

Boeing and its offshoot Narus, which specializes in software that protects against Internet attacks, are also suspected of cooperating with the Gaddafi regime. They have denied this.

Syria and BlueCoat (United States)

According to a study of Syria’s censorship infrastructure last month by Telecomix, Fhim and Reflets.info, the Syrian government’s phishing and website blocking is assisted by the US company BlueCoat. The passwords and “private” communications of Yahoo! Messenger, MSN and Facebook users are being recorded with the help of technology provided by BlueCoat, the survey said. BlueCoat has allegedly provided Syria with at least two different technologies, including Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), which can be used to intercept all sorts of communication including emails and phone calls as well as photos and messages posted on online social networks such and Facebook and Twitter, and proxy filters.

Bahrain and Nokia Siemens Network (Finland)

Nokia Siemens Network (NSN) has been accused of providing the monitoring technology that the Bahraini authorities have been using to spy on the emails, mobile phone conversations and text message of dozens of human rights activists. Abdul Al-Khanjar, an activist who was detained from August 2010 to February 2011, said the security officials who interrogated him revealed that they had the records of the messages he had sent from his phone. Speaking on condition of anonymity, several Nokia employees confirmed that this technology had been provided to Bahrain. Ahmed Al-Doseri, director of information and communications at Bahrain’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, confirmed that Bahrain was using this kind of sophisticated monitoring technology. There may be a European Union investigation into these allegations.

Nokia spokesman Ben Roome said: “We are very aware that communications technology can be used for good and ill.” Reporters Without Borders regrets that this awareness is not reflected in the company’s commercial decisions. Nokia and Siemens already provided Iran with software necessary for telecommunications surveillance in 2009. Nokia confirmed that it had sold DPI-based technology to Iran.

Thailand and Netfirms (Canada)

Netfirms Inc, a Canadian web hosting company that is also based in the United States, provided the Thai government with information that enabled it to identify Anthony Chai, a US citizen of Thai origin, as the person who was anonymously conducting a pro-democracy blog in the Thai language, Manusaya.com. As a result, the Thai authorities were able to arrest and interrogate Chai at Bangkok airport, when he visited Thailand, and even got him to meet with a Thai official after he had returned to California. They also warned him that he would be arrested for lèse-majesté if he went back to Thailand. Chai filed a complaint against Netfirms on 24 August for providing his email and IP addresses to the Thai authorities without his knowledge, and for closing down his blog at their request.

China and Cisco (United States)

The US computer technology company Cisco Systems has been accused not only of providing China since 2007 with the technology for a censorship system called Golden Shield, used for identifying political dissidents, but also of helping to set up and develop the system. Two complaints have been recently filed against Cisco in the United States: one on 19 May in a court in San Jose, California, by the Falun Gong, a religious movement banned in China, and one in June in a Maryland court by three Chinese netizens – Liu Xianbin, Du Daobin and Zhou Yuanzhi – and 10 other people.

Both lawsuits stress the Chinese government’s use of Cisco’s technology to identify online dissidents and the fact that this enabled the authorities to detain and torture them. Cisco has denied any role in Chinese repression in a message posted on the company’s blog by vice-president Mark Chandler. “We have never customized our equipment to help the Chinese government – or any government – censor content, track Internet use by individuals or intercept Internet communications,” Chandler wrote.

Nonetheless, Cisco cannot deny providing the Chinese government with security technology including Deep Packet Inspection, which can be used to track down cyber-dissidents.

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