Let me reiterate – for I already said it in the first piece – that Western corporations and their shareholders do have a moral obligation to refrain from actively pursuing business opportunities with dictatorships when those opportunities involve supplying products and services specifically designed to aid their crimes and repression. But very few technologies are constructed so as to be only usable for crime and repression
A few cases of complicity are obvious, such as the Italian company that actively exploited a dictator’s desire to break into dissidents’ communications. Most cases, however, are not obvious; the technology may be part of a general infrastructure that can aid the oppressed citizens more than it strengthens the government. Or it might do both at the same time. The definition of the controlled technology will never be simple when ICTs are involved. It is therefore incumbent upon human rights activists to be extremely accurate about what and who they target.
Right, thinking about the capabilities of a particular technology and how that technology might be used within a particular social, cultural, political, legal, etc. context is key. But the technology-is-neutral-tools and ICT-is-special assumptions underlying this and the previous post undermine the careful thinking that he advocates just as much as the tendency he is critiquing among activists, journalists, and politicians. Both are guilty of oversimplification and equivocation.
activists involved in this controversy were starting to characterize information technology – all information technology – as weaponry and basing their policy models on that equation. In the latest Bloomberg article, the weaponization of ICT has become open and explicit. Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, now calls it “the digital arms trade.” And here is Brett Solomon, who purports to be an activist for Internet freedom: “Technology can be used as a weapon and should be treated with the same care and sold with the same due diligence.”
This kind of talk makes me angry. For the past five years, some of us have been challenging the rampant securitization of the Internet by a cyber-military-industrial complex still looking for a replacement for the Cold War. The key rhetorical and political ploy used by these forces is to equate the diffusion and ubiquity of information technologies with weapons proliferation, and thus to equate an open and free information infrastructure with national weakness. The implication is that empowering civil society with access to information technology is dangerous, and needs to be checked and regulated by the state. Such an approach is routinely used by cyber-nationalists to limit and block access, and to justify surveillance and interception of communications. Indeed, if the metaphor is accepted it can only lead in that direction.
If self-styled Internet freedom activists are adopting the same mindset as Michael McConnell, the battle for Internet freedom is lost.
This is backwards. Dictators, repressive governments, and even Western governments are engaged in militarizing and securitizing the Internet and ICTs. They want to use the technology as weapons and see the infrastructure as both target and battlefield. So to combat that tendency, we should allow them to have the technologies that they have clearly indicated they wish to use as weapons? The argument seems to be that resisting the trend towards securitization and militarization will somehow legitimize that trend. Therefore, we should just let the militarists do what they want with the technology that they have clearly indicated they seek to use as a weapon. This makes no sense.
The emerging narrative around surveillance technology provides the perfect frame for public activism. You have a clear bad guy – a Gadhafi, an Assad, the Iranian theocrats, the Chinese Communist Party. You have a symbolic token, a technology, which links the bad guys and their bad actions to reachable actors – the corporate vendors – who are part of our own society and jurisdiction. You can then campaign on a simple moral impulse – the reachable actors must not be allowed to aid, abet or profit from the violence and political injustice of the bad guys. This in turn leads to what seems like a simple and effective policy response – to sever the link between reachable actors and the bad guys by somehow banning or regulating the transfer of this technology on a global basis.
First, we need to stop pretending that a specific type of technology and a few commercial vendors can be vested with responsibility for an entire societal system of repression and control. Pressuring Western vendors may well get them to wash their hands of dirty regimes in the short term, but it will not lead to the fall of those regimes and may not change them in any substantial way. We should have no illusions about that.
The fallacious attitude behind much of this talk is that the surveillance technology is a kind of magic talisman, and whoever possesses it instantly achieves unchecked power over society at large. But I cannot be the first to notice that 4 out of the 6 countries routinely targeted by this publicity on surveillance technology have either fallen already (Tunisia, Libya, Egypt) or are at risk of falling (Syria)? The other two, Iran and China, have used censorship and surveillance to survive popular upheavals, but in both cases it was mainly brute force –coupled with a modicum of support from critical factions of the populace – that did the trick, not information technology alone.
Just because one single response will not solve the entire problem does not mean that you should not act. Indeed, there is a lot that goes into propping up a repressive regime besides technology, information or otherwise. And that fact should suggest to us that just as technology is not a single cause, there are likely no other single causes as well. If that is the case, then we need to a multi-faceted approach to strike the multiple and tangled roots that feed the repressive system. While surveillance technologies are not sufficient to sustain repressive regimes, they are certainly necessary. Thus, they are a legitimate target. And when the companies that create and sell surveillance systems live close to home, they are an even easier target.
the problem lies in the users and uses of the technology, not in the equipment or software itself.
This is the classic, but flawed, assumption/belief that technology is just neutral tools, that technology is neither good nor bad, that the political and moral valences of technology are a result of its use. But there is no shortage of work in science and technology studies that demonstrates that this is not the case. The most famous and influential piece is Langdon Winner’s essay, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” But there are many others besides.
And yet politicians remain fixated on the technology.
The problem with this approach is that information technology, unlike bombs or tanks, is fundamentally multi-purpose in nature. You cannot isolate “bad” information technology in order to control bad uses. There is no technical difference between the devices and services for digital surveillance used by the Chinese and Iranian governments and those used by the American, Canadian, French or British governments. The same capabilities inhere in all of them.
Thus, there is little appreciation of the extent to which export controls and other restrictions might retard the overall diffusion and development of information and communication technology, cut off access to good people and good uses as well as bad ones, or restrict our own freedom to use the technology as and how we see fit.
There are a couple problems here:1) He asserts that IT is even more neutral that other technologies. IT is special. It might be the case that IT is more flexible in the ways that it can be used. But it is not entirely flexible. It is not entirely neutral.2) He equivocates between IT in general and surveillance technology in particular. Yes, there is not much difference between surveillance technology in the United States and in China. But that does not mean that there is no difference between surveillance technology and other types of IT, that they are all equally neutral morally or politically.
We should be pressing for free trade and free markets in communication and information technology products and services in those countries, not creating restricted lists and throwing everything that can be misused onto them.
True, we should be pushing for liberalization. We should be pushing for more open telecommunications laws and access to IT throughout these societies. And when we have succeeded, when we can be sure that the legal and political basis has been created such that surveillance technologies will not be used as tools of repression, then we can re-consider exporting these technologies to those countries. But until then, restrictions should be considered. This is not an either or situation–restrict exports of surveillance technology OR push for liberalization of telecom and political reforms. It’s a first this, then that situation–political and legal reforms, then export of surveillance tech.
In March 2009, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Internet ordered Internet cafés to install hidden cameras and provide a record of the names and identities of their customers. Should we respond to this problem by imposing restrictions on world trade in cameras? Should we focus on the specific vendor of the camera and shame them into withdrawing their products?
In a news report, she said surveillance footage has been used to identify and apprehend peaceful protesters in China, including in Xinjiang and Tibet.
Here the utter confusion between technology and bad use is evident. There is a crude kind of anthropomorphism at work here. If you can blame a video surveillance camera for its misuse by repugnant governments, and argue for blocking the movement of those goods, what about integrated circuits, copper wires and lenses that go into them? What about the plastic housings? What about the shipping services that transported the material there? Exactly when do these materials and services become evil? Exactly how much of the supply chain should be targeted for restriction? And anyway, how likely is it that the way Chinese municipalities use those cameras will change if the Cisco deal is torpedoed? Won’t they just get the cameras from someone else, or from a domestic supplier? Isn’t this whole approach to the problem a dead end?
Again, a couple problems:1) He already said that it’s all about “use.” It’s the use that is good or bad, not the technology. In this case we see repressive governments clearly signaling their intent to use supposedly neutral technologies for bad purposes. There is an assumption that because technology is supposedly neutral, it is impossible to predict how it will be used. But in these cases, it is not a mystery why these regimes want the technology and what they intend to do with it.2) Just because they might get the technology from somewhere else, that does not meant that we should give up and sell it to them anyway. It doesn’t matter if they will get it somewhere else or even make it themselves. If we know the capabilities of the technology and have a strong indication that the user intends to use it for repressive purposes, then do we not have a moral obligation to deny it to them to the best of our abilities?
But activists concerned with real social change must think through this problem more deeply, and come up with strategies that strike more directly at the pillars of authoritarianism, censorship and arbitrary power, rather than lashing out at easy domestic targets.
Again, there is no one cause, no one root at which to strike. There are multiple roots. Surveillance is one of those roots and it happens to stretch all the way back to our neighborhood.