Future Tense

Congressman Crusades To Block Sales of Surveillance and Censorship Gear to Dictators

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.

Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Authoritarian regimes are willing to pay big bucks for the latest surveillance and censorship tools. But a congressman from New Jersey is on a crusade to make sure tyrants can’t get their hands on American spy gear—no matter how high the price.

Earlier this week, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., introduced the Global Online Freedom Act of 2013, aimed at curtailing “the growing use of the Internet as a tool of repression.” Smith has launched versions of the bill in previous years, but he says the latest incarnation has been beefed up with new clauses targeting companies who may be involved in selling dual-use technology that could be used for nefarious purposes if in the hands of a despot.

According to a statement made by Smith at a congressional hearing Tuesday, GOFA would, among other things:

  • Prohibit the export of hardware or software that can be used for potentially illicit activities such as surveillance, tracking, and blocking to the governments of Internet-restricting countries.
  • Require the State Department to improve its reporting on Internet freedom in the annual Country Report on Human Rights Practices, and to identify by name Internet-restricting countries.
  • Require Internet companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges to disclose to the Securities and Exchange Commission how they conduct their human rights due diligence, including with regard to the collection and sharing of personally identifiable information with repressive countries, and the steps they take to notify users when they remove content or block access to content.

If Smith’s bill were to be adopted into law, it would have major ramifications for companies like California-based Blue Coat. As I reported last month, the Silicon Valley tech firm has been accused of having provided countries like Bahrain, China, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates with network filtering equipment that can be used for censorship and surveillance of Internet traffic. GOFA may also impact the secretive, unregulated trade in zero-day exploits, complex codes that can target vulnerabilities in software programs in order to infiltrate computers.

The bill has been referred to three House committees—Foreign Affairs, Ways and Means, and Financial Services—that will now consider whether to push it forward for review and amendment. Past versions of the bill have advanced through the committees but have stalled in the final stages, perhaps because these issues are not seen by lawmakers as a high priority. Realistically, it’s unlikely that GOFA 2013 will be any different—but that’s not to say it isn’t a valuable and necessary contribution. At the very least, it will keep Internet freedom issues on lawmakers’ radar and put pressure on the government to update its outdated policies when it comes to controlling the sale of sophisticated surveillance and censorship technologies.

Smith’s continued efforts to press for Internet freedom-protecting laws were lauded last year by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which described an earlier version of GOFA as “an important step toward protecting human rights and free expression online.” However, EFF also expressed reservations about that bill, saying it was concerned that export restrictions might have a counter-productive effect by stopping activists from obtaining tools that allow them to “monitor their own communications for security vulnerabilities and backdoors.”

A similar debate over the regulation of dual-use technologies has been taking place in Europe, where efforts to restrict monitoring and censorship tools from getting into the wrong hands are well underway. The European Parliament recently adopted a proposal to upgrade export regulations to encompass surveillance equipment, a move prompted by a series of reports revealing links between European spy tech companies and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa.