In yet another case (in a long and distinguished line) of businesses proving they cannot handle the freedom they demand, the European Union Parliament has banned the overseas sales of surveillance equipment to repressive regimes.
Over here in the United States the debate rages on whether businesses can be trusted to police themselves and become ethically excellent, or whether they must indeed be regulated. While in the European Union Parliament, battling with Europea’s debt crisis, some technology firms received a vote of no confidence as far as civil liberties were concerned.
According to Bloomberg—which claims its August probe request led to the legislation—the EU voted in Strasbourg, France yesterday to restrict the sale and export of telephone and data-interception technology to nations known to use such technology to violate human rights and civil liberties.
This follows several incidents in the Arab Spring, in which, according to EU assembly member and chief sponsor of the legislation Joerg Leichtfried, “Software was used to tap phone conversations, to check their Internet activity and to trace their location.”
The software was sold by Siemens AG (SIE), maintained by Nokia Siemens Networks, then by “NSN’s divested unit, Munich-based Trovicor GmbH,” according to the original Bloomberg report.
Enforcement now falls to each of the 27 member nations, so this could be rather interesting as far as implementation, with some countries giving it more weight than others.
Leichtfried stated in an interview, “The EU should absolutely make no business out of dealing with regimes that do things to repress people.”
Indeed. However, it shouldn’t take legislation for tech firms to know they should be doing the right thing—ethics before profit. There should always be a more pro-active approach in business. Many would have us think that business is perfectly capable of this, but we know otherwise.
As Cindy Cohn from the Electronic Frontier Foundation writes, “It’s time for tech companies to step up and ensure that they aren’t wittingly or unwittingly assisting in the commission of gross human rights violations.”
But this isn’t just a problem with European tech firms; Cisco Systems has been accused of selling surveillance equipment to China for suppression, and, according to EFF, Narus—a subsidiary of Boeing—not only sold surveillance equipment to Egypt, but their equipment such as the supercomputer system NarusInsight has been used by AT&T and the NSA as detailed in the EFF’s Jewel & Hepting cases. Narus also has customers in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
According to the EFF, though, “Members of the U.S. Congress, such as Republican Representatives Chris Smith and Mary Bono and Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, are also watching closely.”
Someone has to watch the watchmen.