Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Western technology companies suspected of selling surveillance technology to Syria and other repressive regimes in a speech on Internet Freedom Thursday, while acknowledging dual use technologies and third-party resellers sometimes make it difficult for tech companies to keep their hands clean.
"When companies sell surveillance equipment to the security agency of Syria or Iran or in past times to Qaddafi, there can be no doubt it will be used to violate rights," Clinton said.
Such direct sales clearly violate U.S. sanctions and can be investigated and prosecuted. In other cases, the international software market can become murky and companies must take responsibility for protecting their brand and reputations, Clinton said.
"Sometimes companies say to us at the State Department, just tell us what to do and we'll do it," she said. "But the fact is, you can't wait for instructions. In the 21st century, smart companies have to act before they find themselves in the crosshairs of a controversy."
As a guide, Clinton urged companies to consider a set of digital human rights standards developed by a coalition of Silicon Valley companies in October.
Also on Thursday, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., reintroduced legislation that would ban the sale of U.S. surveillance technology to restrictive regimes and require U.S. corporations to report to the government any requests for information they receive from those regimes. The legislation has failed to win passage several times in the past.