Will spy tech corporations be held responsible for human rights violations?

Next week, a case is coming before the Supreme Court—Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum—that will determine if corporate “persons” are also immune from civil and criminal prosecution.

As detailed in a New York Times op-ed, the case will consider a 1784 law called the Alien Torts Statute. The author of the op-ed, Peter Weiss—VP of the Center for Constitutional Rights—wrote: “[T]he law has been interpreted to mean that foreigners who commit heinous crimes abroad in violation of international law can be held accountable in the United States if they are present or do business here; the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in 2004.”

In 2010, however, coinciding with the controversial Citizens United v. FEC decision that defined corporations as “persons,” the 2nd Circuit Court ruled in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum that corporations could not be sued under the Alien Torts Statute. The decision is not on appeal.

As noted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), this case might prove critical in the ongoing battle against spy technology firms that sell surveillance gear to autocratic governments such as China, Libya, Iran and Syria. Cisco, for instance, has come under fire in the last decade for selling such gear to the Chinese government. According to the Wall Street Journal, Net Optics Inc., based in California has sold technology to a major Chinese mobile operator to monitor real time cell phone use. Net Optics, naturally, responded that it follows US law “to the letter.”

This, to my mind, is just the problem: it isn’t always about spy tech firms circumventing the law; sometimes US law allows the sales to occur. This should not happen in a country that fancies itself a beacon for international democracy.

Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority is another case set to be heard by the Supreme Court. According to the Supreme Court blog, “The Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 allows lawsuits to be brought in U.S. courts against ‘any individual who, under actual or apparent authority, or color of law, of any foreign nation’ subjects another individual to torture.” At issue is whether “any individual” can be interpreted as any organization, including a corporation.

It is not difficult to imagine how technology sold to Syria, for instance, could result in the arrest and torture of an activist.

If our government is incapable of drafting a set of laws that absolutely forbids the sale of spy technology to known violators of human rights, then the only recourse lies with the courts and the press. Journalists and human rights organizations have been doing their part in spreading awareness—now it is time for the courts to do their job and hold corporations responsible.

And if the Supreme Court upholds the aforementioned rulings, corporations will continue to act as though they live in a responsibility-free world.

[Image via Shutterstock]