Technology and history converged in 2011 to bring about momentous change. A year ago this month, the repressive Tunisian president Zine Ben Ali was forced to flee his country. Twenty-seven days later, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned. Eight months later, Moammar Gaddafi was gone. A month after that, Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced his resignation. The Internet and other social media sites played a key role in allowing protesters to organize and bring about political change in their respective countries.
Other repressive regimes responded by redoubling their efforts to crack down. They did so by jailing bloggers, hijacking Facebook pages, and in the case of Iran, requiring cybercafés to install surveillance cameras. They managed to buy sophisticated technologies to sniff out digital dissidents and silence them.
The sale of this type of technology to a repressive regime like Iran highlights the need for companies to be guided by a set of principles aimed at protecting human rights.
“We believe,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner, “that creators and purveyors of technologies have a responsibility to respect human rights through their products and their practices.”
Imposing sanctions against companies who sell surveillance type technology to repressive regimes may be a useful tool. But ultimately, said Assistant Secretary Posner, “no regulatory regime can substitute for thoughtful, proactive practices by corporations that must be mindful of the ways their products are likely to be used or abused in the real world.”
In an effort to ensure that the Internet remains free, the U.S. has joined a coalition of fifteen countries called the Coalition for Freedom Online. It brings together governments, businesses, civil society and academics to defend Internet freedom. Together they will stand up for the rights of Internet users and cyber-activists.
As part of that commitment, the United States and Netherlands announced the creation of Digital Defenders partnership to provide support for Internet users under threat. The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development have spent over seventy million dollars to fund projects supporting Internet freedom, ranging from developing circumvention technologies to training activists in cyber self-defense.
The United States believes that universal human rights apply online as they do offline. And promoting those rights remains a U.S. foreign policy priority.