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Are Tech Companies Beginning To Act More Responsibly?


There is much debate about how best to get technology companies to act responsibly and ethically when doing business with repressive regimes: whether its through corporate self-regulation, a multi-stakeholder approach like the Global Network Initiative, or tightening up export legislation.

There are a number of advocacy groups, such as Access Now and Human Rights Watch, working on these issues, who have been active in naming and shaming companies with less-than-stellar records. It might be that we are seeing the early fruits of such awareness-raising. From Bloomberg:
Area SpA, the Italian company that had been building an Internet surveillance system in Syria, is exiting the project, according to the newspaper la Repubblica, which cited a lawyer for the firm.
If completed, the system would have given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime the power to intercept, scan and catalog virtually every e-mail that flows through the country, Bloomberg News reported Nov. 4, citing a person familiar with the project and blueprints for the system.
(A U.S. company, Blue Coat, attracted media attention in October after it was revealed that they had supplied Syria with Internet-blocking technology.)

According to Bloomberg, Area got its start "furnishing phone taps to Italian law enforcement." There seems to be a familiar pattern of companies who, for example, progress from providing "lawful intercept" technologies to democracies (it's a requirement by the EU that network operators have such capabilities) to providing the same, or tweaked technology, to dubious regimes. Also, companies such as Blue Coat produce so-called dual-use technology that can be used by corporate networks for in-house filtering or, on a more broader scale, for country-level filtering in places like Syria.
The same technology can, in a well-functioning democracy, enable police to catch criminals by accessing their phone records. But it can also be used by countries like Belarus to find and crack down on pro-democracy demonstrators.

When companies are deciding who to do business with it's often less about the technology and more about the political landscape in the destination country: Does the rule of law exist? Is there an independent judiciary? So the onus is on companies, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation has framed it, to "Know Your Customer."

Rather than legal questions, often these might be ethical calls, just as (hopefully) arms dealers would think twice about selling weapons to an army of child soldiers.
In another promising move, Bloomberg today reported that the U.K. government is looking into "whether to ban the sale of mobile-phone surveillance software to Iran and Syria."

U.K. Business Minister Judith Wilcox was answering questions in Parliament:
Creativity Software Ltd., a British technology company, has exported software to Iran legitimately, Wilcox said, and the questioning of companies over exports to “difficult countries” is “very robust” to ensure that the technology is not misused. The company sold a system this year that enables Iranian law- enforcement and security forces to monitor mobile-phone locations, Bloomberg News reported on Oct. 31, citing three people familiar with the transaction.

Creativity, based in Kingston-upon-Thames in southwest London, confirmed it supplies mobile-phone operator MTN Irancell Telecommunications Services Co. with location-based services technology in a statement posted on its website. The company declined to discuss sales of any location-tracking gear for law- enforcement purposes, saying that would breach contract confidentiality.
While too early to say, perhaps the tide is turning and corporations are beginning to heed the call to act more responsibly. That could mean that many other companies choose to follow suit -- unfortunately it could also mean that companies operating with less scruples, from the West or perhaps from countries like China, will see a gap in the market. After all, the demand for such technologies will still be there.
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