EU wants stricter control of censorship software

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Internet applications such as facebook and Twitter played a large role in the Arab spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The hardware and software used by the regimes to monitor communications between protestors played an equally important role.

Internet applications such as facebook and Twitter played an important role in the recent Arab spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Equally important was the use of hardware and software to monitor and block those same Internet applications. The European Parliament has called for the export of eavesdropping and censorship software to be strictly controlled.

China, Iran, Syria; just three of the many countries that censor internet use. In the United States, legal proceedings are taking place against Cisco systems for complicity in Internet censorship and the oppression of dissidents and members of the Fallon Gong by the Chinese government. Earlier, the activities of other companies, including Google and Yahoo, were deemed controversial.

But there are numerous other companies that facilitate censorship through the export of the necessary hard-and software.

EU parliamentarian (MEP) Judith Sargentini: “Nokia Siemens has supplied Iran with various items of hardware and software. A British company supplied Egypt's Mubarak regime with the equipment necessary to monitor facebook and Twitter, and the Dutch Fox-it company tried to market a number of products in Tehran and other Arab countries."

Stricter control
The European Parliament is currently tightening up regulations governing the export of hardware and software that can be used for censorship or repression. Christian Democrat MEP Lambert van Nistelrooij is in favour of tougher export regulations:

“What we need to do is create a list with certain products. Companies proposing to do business with countries that have questionable records when it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, can consult the list and know exactly where they stand.”

Double-edged sword
MEP Sargentini says the experiences of Fox-it show that certain technologies can be used for good as well as evil:

“It’s two sides of the same coin; here in the Netherlands, Fox-it protects Dutch consumers and has recently helped the government to get out of trouble with the security certificates issue. However, the same company also makes eavesdropping devices.”

RNW contacted Fox-it and the company confirmed (in writing) that police and security services can tap and analyse internet traffic using its FoxReplay software. The company refused to comment on any of its clients but says it conforms to all current export laws and regulations.

In an interview with a Dutch weekly magazine earlier this year Ronald Prins said,

“It has certainly happened that the authorities in a country where there has suddenly been a great deal of commotion have contacted us and attempted to purchase our products. And then I have been very clear and said that that is something that we do not do”.

It's not clear how the proposed EU export regulations on censorship technology will be applied. It is possible that companies will have to apply for export licences. This could be regulated by putting controversial technology on an existing dual-use the list that controls the export of items that can be used for civilian as well as militarily ends.

The Dutch government is in favour of requiring export licences; however, other EU member states and some MEPs are in favour of regulating exports after the fact.