8-29-2011By Meg Roggensack
Senior Advisor, Business and Human Rights
Nokia Siemens Networks is once again in the headlines for its role in providing technology that enabled a repressive government to surveil, interrogate and detain activists. In 2009, the story focused on Iran’s brutal repression of pro-democracy activists. Now, the focus is the Bahraini government’s brutal interrogation of human rights campaigners using intercepted private communications. A story by Bloomberg Markets raises fresh questions about the responsibilities of companies that sell this technology, and whether home governments should adopt some oversight of these sales.
In 2009, NSN responded that it was required as a condition of sale to provide intercept technology, a standard feature of such contracts to serve legitimate law enforcement purposes; that on balance, the company believed that providing mobile communications technology would benefit the citizens of Iran by enabling greater communication; and that the technology provided had restricted functionality. NSN subsequently sold this business unit, acknowledging that the technology had both good and bad uses and that the company should have better understood the human rights implications associated with these sales. NSN has since adopted policies in an effort to address these concerns. In addition to a specific human rights policy on product misuse, the company says it will beef up its human rights impact assessments to identify prospective sales raising the risk of misuse, and to ensure more thorough due diligence and senior management involvement in any decisions on requests to disclose communications.
NSN competes for this business with a range of other US, European and Asian companies. In the absence of meaningful home government oversight or regulation, it’s up to these companies to police themselves. As Bloomberg’s report outlines, there are significant human rights risks associated with sales of intercept technology to governments with poor human rights records. At a minimum, these companies should have policies and procedures in place to ensure that they can identify which sales raise the potential risk of misuse, and to lay out procedures for advance review of such sales, and, as possible, the inclusion of safeguards in any service contracts.
Both US and European governments should take the opportunity to investigate whether existing contracts, particularly ongoing service arrangements, pose similar risk of abuse by governments seeking to stifle popular expression. In addition, home governments should determine what level of ongoing oversight may be appropriate, consider how best to collaborate with other home governments on a common strategy, and assess possible regulatory and diplomatic responses to this challenge.
Bloomberg’s story is a wake up call – to industry and to home governments. “Business as usual” has given repressive [Mid East] regimes a potent tool to track and suppress dissent, undermining the global community’s shared interest in promoting peaceful democratic transition in the region. It’s time for a new strategy, rooted in respect for human rights and greater transparency and accountability.