Hacking the Revolution

President Obama may talk a good game about Arab democracy, but he's done nothing to stop Western technology firms from helping repressive regimes crack down on protesters.


Pick a country, any country, touched by the Arab Spring, and chances are that Western technology has been used there to suppress pro-democracy movements. Even though this directly undermines U.S. efforts to promote democracy and Internet freedom in the Middle East and elsewhere, President Barack Obama’s administration has remained oddly silent about it. If the White House won’t act, it’s time for Congress to pick up the slack.

European companies have provided software to security services in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen to monitor email and voice communications. In Bahrain, dissidents were confronted by interrogators with intercepted email messages and were tortured. U.S. surveillance technology was reportedly provided to Egypt (from Narus, a subsidiary of Boeing) and Syria (from the Silicon Valley-based firm NetApp), though both companies deny knowledge of the sales.

The use of Western technologies to censor Internet content is even more widespread. Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, among others, have blocked access to content deemed undesirable by their governments by using U.S.-made SmartFilter products. Syria got hold of Internet-filtering devices from California-based Blue Coat without the company’s knowledge, despite the U.S. trade embargo on Syria. These devices were used to block websites of opposition groups and news about the anti-regime protests. Other countries, including Qatar, Kuwait, and Sudan, use Canadian or European technologies to filter content on a large scale.

Western technologies to restrict the Internet are working directly at cross-purposes with the Obama administration’s policy of promoting Internet freedom and its encouragement of democratic forces in the Arab world. The Obama administration has repeatedly declared a strong commitment to the free flow of information online and has allocated $120 million to support civil society’s efforts to challenge Internet restrictions in repressive environments. Much of this support goes to circumvent Internet censorship and strengthen digital security of activists — thus, in part, to get around U.S.- and European-made blocks to Internet access and to protect activists from Western-built surveillance technologies.

The Obama administration’s efforts to resolve this contradiction have so far been paltry. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton exhorted businesses to do the right thing in a February speech on Internet freedom: "Businesses have to choose whether and how to enter markets where Internet freedom is limited," she said. She looked to the Global Network Initiative, which brings together businesses and human rights groups, to "solve the challenges" that repressive regimes pose to technology companies. This initiative has promoted better human rights practices among some companies but has failed to stem the sales of Western surveillance and censorship technologies to some of the worst abusers of human rights.

One piece of legislation that can seriously curtail the collaboration by Western companies in suppression of Internet freedom is the updated version of the Global Online Freedom Act, known as GOFA 2.0, which Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) is introducing in Congress this week. This bill would require U.S. technology companies to disclose how they protect the rights of their users, particularly how they collect and share personal data and block online content. It would also prohibit exports of surveillance and censorship technologies to countries that restrict the Internet.

GOFA 2.0 dovetails with efforts in Europe to curb similar technology sales. Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal has called for export controls on technologies that filter Internet content, and the European Parliament voted in April to introduce controls on technologies for monitoring Internet and mobile-phone use, though these measures still require the European Council’s approval.

Export controls may put a few U.S. businesses at a competitive disadvantage, but they are the only effective way to stop the use of U.S. technology to violate human rights. They can be carefully targeted to have a limited impact on U.S. commercial interests — for instance, by applying them only to specific technologies, such as spyware and content filters, whose primary purpose is to monitor digital communications or block online content.

In Cairo during the recent protests, furious Egyptian demonstrators held up U.S.-made tear-gas canisters as a sign that the United States was still supporting their oppressors. In much the same way, the use of U.S. technology by repressive governments to track down democracy advocates — who are then imprisoned and tortured for espousing our common values — is a blemish on America’s image and a blow to U.S. credibility.

The United States must move beyond its current contradictory policies of offering rhetorical support to pro-democracy activists while at the same time turning a blind eye to the sale of U.S. technologies that put those very activists at greater risk. Establishing limits on the sale of these dangerous technologies is the true measure of a deep commitment to Internet freedom and a concrete step the United States can take to realize the hopes of the Arab Spring.

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