EU must not back down on control of digital weapon exports

Reporters Without Borders – known internationally as Reporters sans frontières (RSF) – hails the European Parliament international trade committee’s approval last week of a proposal for reinforcing controls on dual-use surveillance technology exports. If implemented, it would help to prevent authoritarian regimes from spying on journalists and arresting them. RSF urges MEPs to adopt this proposal when it goes before a full session of the European Parliament in January, and to resist the siren calls from the lucrative surveillance industry’s lobbyists.

Does the committee’s vote mean the European Union will finally stop turning a blind eye to the export of digital weapons? The legislative revision currently under way could make it harder for European companies to export software to authoritarian regimes that use it to spy on journalists.

“The challenge now is not to relinquish anything in the proposal already approved by the parliamentary committee,” Elodie Vialle, the head of RSF’s Journalism and Technology Desk, said. “MEPs must not yield to the siren calls of lobbyists orchestrated by the companies that sell surveillance technology. This is a unique chance to show that business stops where respect for human rights starts, including respect for the freedom to inform.”

Invisible but real weapons

The goal is to limit the export of software that allows these regimes to intercept phone calls, hack into computers and decipher passwords. Such technology is called “dual use” because it has both civilian and military applications. In the same way that nuclear energy can be used to generate electricity and make bombs.

Several European Union countries, including Italy and France, are involved. The French company Amesys, for example, sold an online communications interception system called Eagle to Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya in 2007. The United Kingdom has also always been lenient on surveillance technology exports to authoritarian regimes.

Media exposure of these exports has been embarrassing for Europe’s democracies. The issue was discussed and – to cries of “Never again!” – the EU has since 2014 included surveillance technology in the dual-use exports that are supposed to be controlled.

Business as usual for the time being

But no account had been taken of the ingenuity of the surveillance technology companies, which the relevant agencies and authorities have done little to curb. Amesys set up operations under the name of AMESys in Dubai where it has continued business as usual including involvement with Field Marshall el-Sisi’s regime in Egypt.

As the crackdown on journalists intensified in Turkey in early 2017, the UK’s department for international trade granted a licence for the sale of communications interception software to the Turkish authorities.

Aware that the promotion of European digital start-up growth does not justify the sale of digital weapons, the European Commission published a proposal for new dual-use technology legislation in September 2016 that would update and harmonize the existing regulations.

After a long discussion and postponing a vote twice, the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade (INTA) voted on 23 November in favour of amendments to the proposal that would tighten the controls on surveillance technology exports.

RSF hails its proposed legal requirement on companies to exercise “due diligence,” meaning they would have to ensure that their exported software would not be used to violate human rights. RSF also welcomes its insistence on more transparency, including the provision of more detailed information about the nature of the technology being exported.

RSF nonetheless reminds MEPs that more clarity is needed about the verification process to which surveillance technology companies must submit.

Right to know

The European Parliament is due to vote on the proposed new legislation between 14 and 18 January. European citizens also have a right to know if their countries are selling digital weapons to dictatorships. RSF will follow the European Parliament’s negotiations closely in the coming weeks.

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Updated on 01.12.2017