The Arab uprisings have been a poignant reminder of how the Internet can promote free expression and assembly, but also how governments can try abuse it. The medium used by demonstrators to organize protests and bring medical supplies to Tahrir Square, for example, was also used by the government to pinpoint human rights defenders for arrest, harassment, and even torture.
This reality will likely be on the minds of policymakers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, who are meeting in Vienna to discuss how to advance media freedoms, and who will be fully aware that while the Internet is a catalyst for popular protest, it is also targeted by governments to stifle those same voices.
An example of these tensions is percolating through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Last week, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and Privacy International filed complaints with the OECD against two companies in the U.K. and Germany. The groups asked the OECD to investigate whether the companies exported surveillance technologies to Bahrain, and whether those technologies contributed to human rights abuses because the spyware sold by the companies allowed the government to monitor, identify, and ultimately retaliate against its critics.
The OECD does not have enforcement capacity in cases filed under these circumstances. If the companies are found to be in violation of its rules, it may lead to some acknowledgement of this problem and perhaps a modest, negotiated resolution. But while the complaint is an important step, it also highlights the need to regulate companies that sell powerful surveillance technology. At a minimum, such companies should be required to assess the human rights records of governments purchasing their products, and what impact their technology may have on human rights defenders or political activists. And governments should regulate that trade to ensure that these technologies do not fall into the wrong hands. This is not a trade that can just be left to the market because broader societal interests are at stake – such as protecting fundamental rights and ensuring human security.
These pressing questions are not restricted to Bahrain alone. Numerous governments with poor human rights records have or are trying to obtain these technologies. Governments around the world need to take this industry seriously and start regulating it appropriately. And it is time for Europe and North America to address the actions of companies within their borders that may be enabling human rights violations across the globe. The OSCE meeting this week is a good opportunity to start this discussion.
Will journalists and human rights defenders be able to protect their privacy – and their sources – online? Can citizens use new forms of communication to defend human rights and hold their governments accountable without fear of illegal surveillance or reprisals?
Decisions such as those taken this week will ultimately define the capacity of the Internet to enable human rights.
Wenzel Michalski is the Germany director at Human Rights Watch. Ben Wagner is a researcher at the European University Institute and a visiting academic fellow at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are their own.