Last Monday during a moving speech at the Holocaust Museum, President Obama announced an executive order allowing US officials to impose sanctions on foreign nationals using technology to carry out human rights abuses in Syria and Iran. A wonderful gesture which is totally and utterly arbitrary and probably unenforceable.
Let’s look at what the order does. The intention is to prevent individuals and companies from enabling the Syrian and Iranian governments to use technology to jail, torture, and massacre their own people. It states:
“Cognizant of the vital importance of providing technology that enables the Iranian and Syrian people to freely communicate with each other and the outside world, as well as the preservation, to the extent possible, of global telecommunications supply chains for essential products and services to enable the free flow of information, the measures in this order are designed primarily to address the need to prevent entities located in whole or in part in Iran and Syria from facilitating or committing serious human rights abuses.”
Already the US has announced new sanctions against the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, the Syriatel phone company, the director of Syria’s general intelligence services, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and Datak Telecom.
The best thing about this executive order is that it finally recognizes the role of the third party enablers in authoritarian governments’ human rights abuses: the manufacturers of the special routers that facilitate internet censorship; the companies that set up nationwide surveillance networks; the individuals who provide information on the location of dissidents. These entities need to be recognized for their role in facilitating atrocities, and this order does that. The problem is that there are a lot of authoritarian governments out there using technology to oppress their people. A lot of them. And even a lot of not-so-authoritarian governments using technology against the interests of their populaces. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a country that doesn’t use technology in a restrictive way. Where do you draw the line?
Let’s take China, for example. China’s Golden Shield is probably the world’s formidable surveillance network, and this technology is routinely deployed to suppress dissent. Every time there’s any kind of disturbance in Tibet, Xinjiang, or anywhere else in the country for that matter, “China uses the well-tested tactic of suspending communications,” according to the Reporters without Borders Enemies of the Internet 2012 report. There is mounting evidence to suggest that American companies, such as Cisco Systems, helped build Golden Shield. I won’t go into too many details here, but Loretta Chao and Don Clark wrote an excellent piece last summer in the Wall Street Journal detailing the role of Cisco, HP, and other companies in the “Peaceful Chongqing” surveillance project. Ethan Gutmann has also written extensively about western companies peddling technological suppression to China in his 2004 book, Losing the New China.
The Chinese government says that the Golden Shield is used primarily for crime control, but opponents argue (quite rightly) that the system can and routinely does snare dissidents in its net. Companies selling technology to China (and other authoritarian regimes) almost always excuse it with the claim that they are merely following the “local laws” of the country they’re doing business in. That’s true. But what happens when those laws are written by authoritarians?
The Arab Spring has made it a lot harder for western companies to use the excuse of “we’re just following the local laws” when they sell technology to oppressors. The popular uprising has illustrated just how integral technology is to organizing dissent, and just how central it is to suppressing it. It has taken years to dismantle the 1990s tech boom era belief that technology can only be democratizing. And while China (and many others) are not using surveillance technology to hunt people down and kill them, they are, in many cases, using technology to severely restrict the human rights of their people. Obama’s executive order is a step in the right direction to recognize the role of third-party atrocity enablers, but ultimately technology companies will still sell to dictators who oppress their people, as long as there are profits to be made and their brand image remains untarnished by doing so.
Since this is a blog on corporate social responsibility after all, it’s important to underscore how companies need to answer this dilemma for themselves. The Global Network Initiative is an interesting approach to the problem. The GNI is a “multi-stakeholder group of companies, civil society organizations (including human rights and press freedom groups), investors and academics spent two years negotiating and creating a collaborative approach to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector, and have formed an Initiative to take this work forward.” In other words, the companies and organizations participating in the GNI, which include Microsoft, Yahoo, and several investment firms, have drawn up a set of principles which will hopefully guide their actions in these kinds of sticky situations. Of course it’s not binding, and far from perfect, but it does provide some “rules of the road” when a company is selling ICT products in a less-than-free setting, and can provide some quasi-legal cover for companies to make ethical decisions while boosting their brand image. The GNI accountability standards require transparency in decision-making, as well as an independent review of the member company’s implementation of the organization’s principles. For such an initiative to work, however, there needs to be more legislative attention paid to the rest of the world beyond Syria and Iran, and significantly more companies need to do the right thing and decide that voluntary participation in such an initiative benefits us all.