Reporters Without Borders Releases List of “Enemies of the Internet”

A man reading online news with his laptop at a coffee shop in downtown Hanoi.

Photo by HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images

In the past year, lawmakers in Europe and the United States have moved to curtail exports of surveillance technology to dictators. But not enough has been done to stop authoritarian countries getting their hands on spy tools that could be abused to commit human rights abuses, according to a prominent advocacy group.

In a report published today, Reporters Without Borders calls out a series of companies and countries as “enemies of the Internet.” It lists Bahrain, Syria, China, Iran, and Vietnam as prone to abuses of surveillance—citing a growing body of evidence that has linked these countries to crackdowns on journalists and activists with the aid of sophisticated spy gear.

Five Western surveillance technology companies also have the dubious honor of being branded “corporate enemies” for their role in manufacturing controversial monitoring equipment. Those named are: France’s Amesys, which supplied Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi with a mass monitoring tool designed to intercept huge quantities of communications; Britain’s Gamma Group, which has been linked to a series of targeted spy Trojan attacks on activists; Italy’s Hacking Team, a Milan-based company that develops “computer infiltration” software that I reported last year had apparently been used to target journalists in Morocco; Blue Coat Systems, a Silicon Valley firm that produces network filtering technology that can be used for surveillance and censorship and is allegedly deployed in a host of countries with poor human rights records; and Trovicor, a German firm that makes mass surveillance monitoring centers reportedly deployed in Iran.

Blue Coat spokeswoman Danielle Ostrovsky told me in an emailed statement that the company recognizes there are “bad actors in the world and that our products, like any technology, can be misused for malign purposes.” She added that Blue Coat is conducting a “comprehensive review” of business, policies, and procedure and said that “we support freedom of expression and do not design our products, or condone their use, to suppress human rights.”

The other four companies named in the report had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication. We’ll update this post if and when we hear back.

In March last year, Reporters Without Borders listed 12 countries in a previous “enemies of the Internet” list—criticizing the likes of Belarus, Burma, Cuba, and North Korea over censorship and attacks on bloggers.

This time round, the group is calling for the “introduction of controls on the export of surveillance software and hardware to countries that flout fundamental rights.” It says that “the private sector cannot be expected to police itself” and is demanding that “legislators must intervene.” In Europe, a number of politicians are trying to do just that. Late last year, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for a formal ban on exports of surveillance and censorship technology to repressive regimes. In the United States, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., last month renewed his repeated efforts to initiate a similar crackdown on surveillance tech exports, but so far he has not had much success.

Failing swift action from lawmakers, Reporters Without Borders suggests a number of practical ways for activists and journalists take matters into their own hands. The group is developing a “digital survival kit” that aims to educate people about how to communicate securely when operating under risk of surveillance. So far the guide includes posts on how to send encrypted emails and surf the Internet anonymously—both vital skills that, for activists in some countries, may be the difference between life and death.