Dictatorships Go High Tech—With Our Help
By Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President
When news broke last month that Swedish telecommunications company TeliaSonera had collaborated with Eurasian dictatorships, it should have come as no surprise. The firm reportedly gave the security services of Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Uzbekistan complete access to their countries' telecom systems, thereby facilitating intercepts of telephone calls and text messages. This collaboration, sadly, fits a pattern.
Nearly three years ago, Nokia Siemens was reported to have sold a sophisticated internet monitoring system to Iran. Since then, news of many other technology sales to repressive regimes has emerged. Most of the autocratic states in the Middle East -- those rated Not Free in Freedom House's Freedom in the World report -- have received U.S. or European technology to censor internet content or monitor online communications.
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When repressive regimes, which restrict free expression and torture their critics, acquire internet censorship or surveillance capabilities, they are very likely to use them to commit human rights abuses. The security services of Bahrain, Iran, and Qaddafi's Libya are known to have employed Western surveillance technology to target dissidents.
Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have put forward proposals to curb exports of such technology to nondemocratic countries. These include the Global Online Freedom Act, currently before the U.S. House of Representatives; calls for export controls by Dutch foreign minister Uri Rosenthal and Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt; and a European Parliament resolution to curtail transfers of technology for monitoring mobile phones, text messages, or internet use.
However, the U.S. and European governments have in fact taken few if any tangible steps to stem the flow of sophisticated technology for controlling the internet and mobile communications to repressive regimes. There are currently no effective measures in place to prevent a company like TeliaSonera or the dozen others that came before it from supplying dictators with the technological means to violate fundamental rights.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.
Authoritarian regimes around the world are exporting their worst practices and working together to repress their own citizens and undermine human rights standards internationally. They have collaborated extensively to strengthen their grip on power, often in the face of domestic discontent and international criticism. This cooperation, which might be dubbed “authoritarian internationalism,” presents a significant challenge to democracy around the world and has likely contributed to the decline in global freedom registered by Freedom House over the past seven years.
Authoritarian regimes around the world are banding together to bypass international institutions and human rights norms that conflict with their abusive practices. Unlike the alliances of the Cold War era, these partnerships have few ideological underpinnings other than a shared rejection of democracy and the rule of law. But such cooperation has offered aid and solidarity to dictators under pressure, and created a marketplace through which repressive regimes can meet their technology, security, and energy needs without the headaches of transparency and accountability. And if the seven-year decline in global freedom recorded by Freedom House is any indication, authoritarianism is, sadly, a growth industry.
Photo Credit | Al Jazeera English
Freedom House’s recently released Freedom on the Net report found that more countries have suffered declines in internet freedom than improvements since the last edition, providing a powerful reminder of the challenges for international policies to promote freedom online. These policies are struggling to keep up with rapid changes in information and communication technologies, and with the increasingly sophisticated restrictions on internet freedom around the world.