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European tech companies scrutinized over surveillance tools sales

As the EU tries to punish Syria's leaders for its political crackdown, one Dutch parliamentarian pushes for a closer look at European sales of online surveillance technology.

Syrian on Facebook

Syrians have used the Internet to speak out

On Monday, the European Union added 18 Syrian leaders - including three from the "Syrian Electronic Army" - to its list of targeted sanctions against individuals. The group has led online defacements of various websites, including the Facebook pages of US President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The move comes as Syria faces increased pressure from European leaders against the political crackdown currently underway in the Mediterranean nation. In addition to its use of physical violence against protestors across the country, the al-Assad government has been using technical surveillance tools to keep track of what's being said, and who's saying it, online.

Earlier this month, a Bloomberg News investigation revealed that an Italian surveillance-equipment company, Area, is actively helping the Syrian regime track the same type of people the EU is trying to support - including even building a new facility to monitor all electronic communications in the country.

Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake

Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake has called for further inquiries into the practices of European companies

"That process needs to be stopped," said Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European parliament. "Because if we in the EU are so critical – and we have been – of human rights violations in Syria, I think we should do even more to stop these violations. But we're completely losing our credbility if at the same time EU-based companies are supplying such serious tools and know-how."

The European Union has been struggling to figure out what practical measures it can take against local companies that do not abide by policies that have been touted at recent Internet freedom conferences held this month in London and Brussels.

For now, Schaake is one of the few voices within the European Parliament raising questions about the possibility that European tech companies are profiting from violations of universal human rights. She has launched a series of seminars in the European parliament to discuss the connections between human rights and freedom and cyberpolicy, hoping to finally establish some EU-wide norms where none now exist.

"We are really facing a game-changer here in responsibility for human rights and I think the EU has to act much more responsibly in this and demand transparency," she told Deutsche Welle.

Corporate actions may be undesireable, but remain legal

However, European officials acknowledge that while companies like Area may be acting distatefully, the company is not doing anything illegal.

Maja Kocijancic

Maja Kocijancic, a European Commision spokesperson, said Area's deals with Syria are legal

"This kind of software, this kind of technology, is not currently on the list of restrictive measures but member states can at any time decide to look at it if they (want to) and if they have the information that supports their decision," said Maja Kocijancic, a spokesperson for the European Commission, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

The Syrian setup, known as "Captor," would establish a complex mapping center that would track electronic contacts and Internet usage in near-real time, according to Bloomberg's report.

Area did not return calls made by Deutsche Welle to its office in Milan to ask how helping the al-Assad regime locate dissidents could be squared with its code of ethics. Published on the company website, the document states all business activitities must be based on "well-being and respect for all" along with "honesty, transparency of purpose, innovation, ethics, social and environmental responsibility."

However, last week, Area's chief executive, Andrea Formenti, said that the company is now considering pulling out of the Syrian monitoring deal.

"Before making a definitive decision, we need to, based on all the contractual obligations we have, evaluate what impact there will be for us," he told Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, Schaake, the Dutch lawmaker has been trying to stir up support amongst her European parlimentarian colleagues.

"We need to have an inquiry, an EU-wide inquiry into the role EU-based companies have played in facilitating human-rights abuses and this is really to get to light what is actually happening, so these companies can share their story," she told Deutsche Welle. "It's not about a witch-hunt, it's about really getting out the truth, what is happening."

Vodafone Egypt

Vodafone Egypt has been under scrutiny for its behavior earlier this year

Vodafone under fire

Beyond Area and its actions in Syria, UK-based Vodafone has also been under scrutiny.

During pro-democracy protests earlier this year, Vodaphone Egypt obeyed regime orders to cut off service and send out pro-government text messages to subscribers. The company said it examined its contract and Egyptian law and found the government could in fact issue such an order and that Vodaphone legally had no alternative but to comply.

"What the companies will say if you ask them, is that some of these issues require government-to-government relationships," said Andrew Pudaphatt, director of Global Partners and Associates, a London-based company that works to promote human rights around the world.

While not excusing Vodaphone's actions in the Egyptian uprising, Pudaphatt added that he understands them, because telecom providers have little choice but to partner with a local company, making them more vulnerable to local norms.

In other words, Pudaphatt added, the contracts that European companies sign to begin with shouldn't put companies in this type of position.

"[Companies would say]: 'You can't expect us to be on the front line of defending human rights when your government won't even deal with the issue themselves,'" he also told Deutsche Welle. "So the Europeans could have had conversations with the Egyptian government about the obligations placed on Vodaphone Egypt as a condition for operating there."

Author: Teri Schultz / cjf
Editor: John Blau

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