How Western Corporations Have Been Helping Tyrants Suppress Rebellions in the Arab World
|Friday, April 1,2011 12:53|
|By Timothy Karr and Clothilde Le Coz|
Springtime in the Arab world is looking bleaker now that despots in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen and reactionary elements in Egypt have gained an upper hand against the pro-democracy protesters who have inspired the world. And the Internet, hailed sometimes in excess as a potent tool for these movements, has itself come under increasing fire from these and other autocratic states seeking to crush popular dissent.
Egypt’s Internet crackdown appears to have been aided by Narus, a Boeing-owned surveillance technology provider that sold Telecom Egypt "real-time traffic intelligence" software that filters online communications and tracks them to their source.
Israeli security experts founded Narus to create and sell mass surveillance systems for governments and large corporate clients. It is known for creating NarusInsight, a supercomputer system that is allegedly being used by the National Security Agency and other entities to provide a “full network view” of suspected Internet communications as they happen.
Leading by Action
In mid-February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about a new U.S. Internet freedom policy designed to help democracy movements gain access to open networks and speak out against authoritarian regimes. As part of this initiative, the State Department will provide tens of millions of dollars in new grants to support "technologists and activists working at the cutting edge of the fight against Internet repression."
Secretary Clinton spoke of the Obama administration's belief in our universal "freedom to connect," something the White House sees as a natural extension of our longstanding rights to free speech, assembly, and association.
Yet it's hard to claim the moral high road and lecture other countries on the importance of online freedom when U.S. companies are exporting DPI systems and other technology to regimes intent on spying on their own people and turning the open Internet into a means of repression.
Asking Clinton’s deputy director James Steinberg about this inconsistency during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in February, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ)brought up Narus’ dealings with the Mubarak regime. “It is an awful tool of repression,” Smith said, “and Narus, according to these reports, is enabling this invasion of privacy.” Rep. Bill Keating (D-MA) continued the questioning, going so far as to say that "people are losing their lives based on this technology." Keating called on Steinberg to investigate U.S. companies that sell DPI technology overseas. In a subsequent press statement, Keating pledged to introduce legislation "that would provide a national strategy to prevent the use of American technology from being used by human rights abusers."
Earlier this month, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, penned Politico op-ed slamming the U.S. technology industry for “failing to address serious human rights challenges.” He wrote, “If U.S. companies are unwilling to take reasonable steps to protect human rights," Durbin wrote, “Congress must step in.”
Pledges to act are encouraging, but far less so than action itself. As of now, we have seen little of substance to defend our freedom to connect against companies and their despotic clients that seek to take it away.
© 2011 Foreign Policy in Focus