Congress' Plan to Stop Exporting Technology to Repressive Regimes

An Egyptian protester uses his laptop next to a cooling fan in Cairo's Tahrir Square in July 2011.

An Egyptian protester uses his laptop next to a cooling fan in Cairo's Tahrir Square in July 2011. Khalil Hamra/AP

The Global Online Freedom Act of 2013 would make it illegal for firms to export equipment that could facilitate digital monitoring.

Western suppliers used the country as a testing ground. Moez Chakchouk, the post-revolution head of the Tunisian Internet Agency, says he’s discovered that the monitoring industry gave discounts to the government-controlled agency, known by its French acronym ATI, to gain access.In interviews following Ben Ali’s ouster after 23 years in power, technicians, activists, executives and government officials described how they grappled with, and in some cases helped build, the repressive Wonderland.

When a U.S. company wants to export military technology, it has to go through a rigorous approval process in Washington. That’s because, of course, if it ends up in the wrong hands, the technology could interfere with U.S. foreign policy, destabilize conflict-prone regions, or worse.

Now one member of Congress wants to apply the same scrutiny to technology that “can be used for potentially illicit activities” such as Internet censorship.

Unveiled this week by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the Global Online Freedom Act of 2013 would, among other things, make it illegal for firms to export equipment that could facilitate digital monitoring. The latest measure resembles previous efforts at curbing online surveillance, but analysts say there’s a danger in the proposed law: The export controls cast too wide a net and could sweep up innocent companies by accident.

“It's very difficult to describe in words [the difference] between ‘bad’ software and ‘good’ software,” said Susan Crawford, a former special assistant on technology for the Obama administration and author of the book Captive Audience. “The consequences of getting it wrong could lead to stifling innovation and making life unnecessarily difficult for U.S. companies.”

Smith’s bill takes aim at firms that have been implicated in repressive governments’ domestic espionage. As monitoring schemes have become more complex, Western companies have become involved in selling goods and services to these governments.

In the Middle East, censorship is routinely tied to the private sector overseas. As a Bloomberg investigation revealed in 2011, American and British entities played a remarkable role in Tunisia’s powerful Internet surveillance machine:

Several California-based companies, including the popular antivirus company McAfee, were found to have provided filtering services to Tunisia’s government. Among other tactics, Tunisian censors were capable of intercepting and rewriting e-mails in transit.

But not all technology lends itself well to the suppression of speech, and that’s precisely where Smith's proposal stumbles, watchdogs say. Whether they know it or not, companies like Cisco that provide networking hardware — routers and other equipment — often find their products repurposed in ways that advance foreign governments’ censorship agenda. The conundrum reveals what until now has largely been the concern of the defense industry: the so-called “dual-use” problem.

To say a product or technology is “dual-use” is to say it can be used for both peaceful and non-peaceful ends. Nuclear equipment is a great example. In civil contexts, it can help produce vast amounts of valuable energy. But in a more nefarious context, it can lead to weapons of mass destruction.

The Global Online Freedom Act reveals how far we’ve come from an era when “dual-use” meant technologies with possible military applications. Now the boundaries of that term are being forced wide open. Today, practically any Internet tool — social networks, open-source software, and so on — that can be co-opted for monitoring purposes could also be considered a dual-use technology. Over half of all U.S. smartphones run Android, Google’s open-source operating system. An app running on that system that collects location or browsing data could potentially run afoul of GOFA. Skype, whichEgyptian officials used to monitor opposition phone calls in 2011, might also plausibly fall into this category. Repurposing a civilian product for darker motives is no longer limited to the military realm — we’re now seeing completely ordinary technologies being (ingeniously) applied to “solve” intrastate problems.

The dual-use problem creates ambiguity that makes legislating much harder than we’d like. Building a kind of terror watchlist for tech suddenly becomes a monumental task when you aren't sure what should qualify. 

Not only is a blacklist heavy-handed, but it requires constant updating as companies break up and products get updated in ever-faster product cycles. And it’s never been clear that unilateral export controls imposed by a single country are actually effective; repressive regimes will just find vendors elsewhere.

Smith is justifiably concerned about accidentally giving hostile governments the tools they need to stay in power. But without much more nuanced language, a bill aimed at creating new freedoms abroad could unwittingly limit them at home.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.