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Freedom of speech

Technology must 'foster, not hinder, free speech'

The latest internet technologies must be developed to encourage free speech and not be used as a tool to surveil and harass those who dare to speak up, says technologist Claudio Guarnieri.

Ahmed Mansoor is a human rights defender from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who was arrested in March. Mansoor has allegedly been subjected to years of cyberattacks through surveillance software and tools sold to the UAE by European companies including FinFisher from Germany and the Italian HackingTeam. Mansoor, the recipient of the 2015 Martin Ennals Award, an annual prize for human rights defenders, remains imprisoned.

Unfortunately he is not alone. Many other cases, perhaps lesser known but just as important, highlight the great risks faced by human rights defenders and activists around the world. These activists are often imprisoned, harassed or forced to flee because of the critical role that intrusive technology plays in enabling such abuses. This is no longer an issue that can be ignored.

Technology's role

When we speak of freedom of expression today we have to also talk about technology. Much of modern journalism and activism happens online. Blogs, social media and collaborative platforms have enabled many to reach wider audiences and bring local issues to the attention of the global community. These tools also assist in more effectively organizing protest movements and in achieving change.

Claudio Guarnieri (cc by Tobias Klenze 3.0)

The internet is an enabler, but also a hindrance to free speech, Guarnieri says

What makes the internet such a powerful technology is that it is both an instrument of liberation and a tool of oppression. It is true that in the minds of most, the internet remains a force for good and a platform of endless economic opportunity. However, it is important that we remind the citizens of the world how pervasively and systematically that same internet enables censorship and surveillance against those in society who risk the most: journalists and human rights defenders.

The ability to monitor those who dare to speak truth to power is very appealing to those who are in power. Whether by directly persecuting people through the information collected, or indirectly by installing fear of ubiquitous control, surveillance is extremely effective at curbing dissent and hindering free expression.

Who's watching?

Unfortunately cases such as Mansoor's are increasing as more and more surveillance technologies produced by European companies are ending up in the hands of repressive governments. The human rights community has long been demanding that surveillance vendors take issues like free expression seriously, but most companies continue with business as usual.

Imprisoned human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor (picture alliance/AP Photo/J. Gambrell)

Human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor was arrested in March in the United Arab Emirates

Electronic surveillance depends on engineering to be developed and perhaps it is these engineers that would be receptive to a dialogue about the consequences of such tools. As technology becomes inherently political, it is necessary that technologists recognize the role they play in society through the products they build. In order to foster this, schools and universities need to educate the computer scientists of tomorrow on matters of ethics and society and equip them with the right tools to determine the global human rights impact of the technologies they develop.

Today some piece of code may significantly contribute to the ability of an entire population to express themselves freely and without fear. It is then up to engineers to decide whether the fruits of their labor will benefit autocrats or activists. As a technologist and an activist, I urge all engineers to exercise their skills with conscience, empathy and solidarity.

Claudio Guarnieri is a technologist and researcher at Amnesty International, a senior research fellow with Citizen Lab, University of Toronto, and the co-founder of Security Without Borders. You can follow him on Twitter @botherderImage: Wikipedia / Tobias Klenze / CC-BY-SA 4.0.

This commentary is a part of DW'sFreedom of Speech Project which aims to highlight voices from around the world on the topics of freedom of expression and press freedom. You can also follow the project on Facebook.

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