In advance of the business and human rights litigation conference on 24 March at NUI Galway, I am reposting this blogpost from 2013, which looked at the potential liability of software companies for supplying technology to Syria.
Technology companies in France are facing legal action for having supplied technology to Libya and Syria that was implicated in human rights abuses. Amesys is facing charges of complicity in torture following the discovery of its product by the Wall Street Journal in the spying headquarters of the Libyan government. A company called Qosmos is also being pursued in the courts for having allegedly supplied surveillance technology to Syria. The products were bought by the Syrian government to build a system “to scan the Syrian communications network”.
It was front page news in the Irish Times last year that technology supplied by Irish companies was used by the Syrian government to censor communications around the time of the mass peaceful protests. Politically sensitive messageswere blocked by the company Syriatel on the instructions of Syrian intelligence. The equipment allowing for this had been supplied by Dublin-based company Cellusys, the paper reported. Software serving the same purpose had been sold by AdaptiveMobile to MTN Syria, the other main mobile operator in the country. According to the Irish Times:
The filtering of text messages has curbed the protesters’ ability to use technologies that helped organise and fuel dissent in other countries across the Middle East and topple autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, according to political opposition groups.
Bloomberg reported that AdaptiveMobile sold a system that may have been used by Iran’s law enforcement and security agencies in their repression of political activists.
Should these companies be liable for the role their products played in curtailing freedom of expression and in breaching the privacy of Syrian citizens? The cases in France claim that the sale of “surveillance equipment” to Libya and Syria makes the supplying companies complicit in torture. According to Michel Tubiana, president of the Human Rights League, one of the NGOs taking the case:
The French justice system must now investigate promptly to determine, if applicable, whether Amesys, by giving the Mouammar Khadafi regime the technological means to identify any dissident voice, is guilty of complicity in acts of torture against the population by this murderous regime.
Both of the Irish companies issued responses to the allegations last year. Cellusys explained in a short statement that their software was designed to “protect assist [sic] mobile operators manage their roaming subscribers both inbound and outbound, provide subscribers with the ability to send SMS when roaming as well prevent SMS fraud within the network”. The company also added, somewhat strangely that:
All people of all nations should be allowed have these technologies to facilitate roaming abroad as well as prevent messaging fraud against them.
AdaptiveMobile denied that it sold software to any governments or their intelligence ministries, and explained that it only sold its products to mobile phone operators and fixed line telecommunication providers. In its statement, it explained that it provided “MTN Syria with a standard SMS spam and MMS Anti-virus solution in 2008”, but at no time had it “a relationship, provided services or ever engaged with, the Syrian or Iranian governments or associated organisations”. The company explained:
Whilst AdaptiveMobile systems will process every SMS in order to block spam it is not designed to monitor individual communications or users and the Company has no evidence of it being used to do so, or being used in court proceedings. […] AdaptiveMobile does not condone the unlawful use or abuse of any software and/or technology and condemns any abuse of telecommunications networks to abridge human rights.
The company did not provide any upgrades or new releases to MTN Syria since 2008, and decided not to renew its contract in 2011, given the “changing political situation in the region”.
The Irish government conducted an investigation in May 2012 and accepted the companies claims that the products were not sold directly to the Syrian government, or that they were intended to be used in curtailing citizen’s rights. Since then, the EU stopped any further sales of such technology to Syria. A little due diligence would have revealed the lack of press freedom in the country and the frequent resort to censorship by the government. Freedom House has reported that the Syrian authorities maintained centralised control over the internet and phone infrastructure, allowing the government to censor communications and to even shut down the system entirely.
Ending their dealings was the least the companies could do, although the damage was already done. Within weeks of the protests, which began in March 2011, Syria’s security services “arbitrarily arrested and tortured activists, writers, and journalists who have reported on or expressed support for the anti-government protests”. The country is now deep in a civil war, which has claimed thousands of lives. Irish and other European technology companies contributed to Syria’s repressive response to peaceful protests, and it seem that they still have a case to answer for.