There has been a raft of incidents of Western technology companies providing repressive regimes with surveillance or Internet-filtering technology. Most recently U.S. and Italian companies have been implicated in supplying surveillance and blocking technology to Syria. Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who has been described as Europe's most wired politician, has been a long-time campaigner for technology companies to be more transparent and ethical in their choices of who they do business with.
I spoke to Schaake by phone on December 1. Read the article also on Radio Free Europe
RFE/RL: WikiLeaks has released a database of documents that show the activities of 160 companies in 25 countries working in the surveillance business. Many of them are selling their equipment to repressive governments such as Syria and Libya. What should Western governments do to regulate this trade?
Marietje Schaake: I've been focusing on this for a long time. What I've found is that there's a complete lack of transparency. Governments don’t know and don’t have the tools to find out what these companies are doing exactly. They operate completely below the radar. They are often incorporated in tax havens on purpose and it's kind of a cat-and-mouse game if there is any query at all into these companies. So I think it's actually high time that this digital weapons trade stops.
RFE/RL: Do you think the best way to tackle this problem is through improving legislation, for instance in the European Union, or through multi-stakeholder initiatives like the Global Network Initiative, or a bit of both?
Schaake: Of course, multi-stakeholder initiatives are important. It's important that experiences are shared, that experiences are exchanged. But at the same time I've already noticed in talking to a number of these companies that we can not just trust them on their good intentions because businesses are in the business of making money so money is most important for them. And sometimes this is at the expense of any respect for human rights or other values. So I think it is very important that we also have tougher measures or at least harder tools to demand due diligence and accountability from companies.
RFE/RL: So you think that the answer would be tougher EU-wide legislation that would regulate exports on such technology?
Schaake: Well, that would be a good start because in order to acquire that we would need one EU-wide standard for what the context on the ground is in certain countries. You mentioned Libya, Syria, we saw Egypt before, we know what's happening in Iran, in Bahrain, so there's a number of countries where we know human rights violations are rampant, and we also know that sometimes the realities on the ground can quickly change. So there needs to be one EU-wide standard so that there is no race to the bottom and that the level playing field for competition and business is maintained. By those EU-wide standards there can be licensing before trade and that would be a huge improvement to where we stand now where there is actually control after the trade has already taken place. I don't know if you've ever tried to get something back after you've given it to someone, but with technology that's virtually impossible. So it means that the laws we currently have are largely symbolic.
RFE/RL: And what do you think the chances are of introducing this EU-wide legislation?
Schaake: The EU-wide character of the legislation should be a no-brainer because everybody wants to preserve the level playing field. We [will] have a harmonized EU market and that benefits everyone but it also means that the players have to play by the same rules. So I think that that's no problem. I do think that a lot of countries as well as companies are very hesitant to be strict about this. It's big business but I think it's essential for the EU's credibility in the world. I don't understand how else we can say that there should be an embargo on trade with Syria, that the killing of people who are unarmed and who are only exercising their human rights has to stop. I saw an initial very good sign in the adoption of a new round of sanctions on Syria, which included the ban on export of technologies which can be used for monitoring and repressing people.
RFE/RL: You said that you think that countries are hesitant about this. Do you think that's because countries aren't aware of the depth of the problem or do you think there's something more nefarious than that?
Schaake: Knowledge is a problem. But I also believe that there are a number of governments that know exactly what's happening. Sometimes it involves companies that they take to trade visits with other countries, whose trade they promote. For some of these countries, it's public knowledge what goods they sell. Others operate below the radar so it wouldn't be fair if it would only be companies who have consumer goods, for example, who are targeted, who can be named and shamed. It should really be the same rules for everyone. But we have to acknowledge there is a difference between the kinds of technologies that are sold. Some involve tools that we use every day, like mobile phones or mobile networks, or the kinds of software which can be used for good and for bad. They are often qualified as so-called "dual-use" technologies, where it really depends on the user how these tools are used. But frankly there's also single-use technologies -- which are really designed in a very targeted way, in a very sophisticated and aggressive way, which allow for the surveillance of individuals, for the localization of individuals, for the breaking in of private communications and mobile communications. So I think we have to get a much clearer sense of this field and I'm sure that with more transparency a lot of policymakers would agree that something has to happen here.