“An electronic curtain has fallen around Iran,” U.S. President Barack Obama warned in a recent video message marking the Persian New Year. Government censorship and surveillance, he said, make it more difficult for Iranians to “access the information that they want,” denying “the rest of the world the benefit of interacting with the Iranian people.”
Implied though not explicit in Obama’s remarks was the idea that if Iran’s Internet were freer and more open, Iran’s relationship with the world generally — and the United States in particular — would be different. Cases like Iran are the main driver of Washington’s bipartisan consensus around the idea that a free and open global Internet is in the United States’ strategic interest.
Yet more than two years after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her first speech declaring “Internet freedom” to be a major component of U.S. foreign policy, it turns out that many of the most sophisticated tools used to suppress online free speech and dissent around the world are actually Made in the USA. American corporations are major suppliers of software and hardware used by all sorts of governments to carry out censorship and surveillance — and not just dictatorships. Inconveniently, governments around the democratic world are pushing to expand their own censorship and surveillance powers as they struggle to address genuine problems related to cybercrime, cyberwar, child protection, and intellectual property.
Even more inconveniently, the U.S. government is the biggest and most powerful customer of American-made surveillance technology, shaping the development of those technologies as well as the business practices and norms for public-private collaboration around them. As long as the U.S. government continues to support the development of a surveillance-technology industry that clearly lacks concern for the human rights and civil liberties implications of its business — even rewarding secretive and publicly unaccountable behavior by these companies — the world’s dictators will remain well supplied by a robust global industry.
American-made technology has turned up around the Middle East and North Africa over the past year — from Syria to Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, from pre-revolutionary Tunisia to Egypt — in contexts that leave no doubt that the software and hardware in question were being used to censor dissenting speech and track activists. While much of this technology is considered “dual use” because it can be used to defend computer networks against cyberattack as well as to censor and monitor political speech, some members of Congress are seeking to prevent its use for political repression. To that end, the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), which passed through the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights last week, takes aim not only at U.S.-headquartered companies but also overseas companies funded by U.S. capital markets.