EU Parliament urges tough rules for surveillance tech exporters

Legislative body wants to stop 'dual-use' technology going to repressive regimes

The European Parliament is calling for stricter rules on companies that export surveillance or so-called "dual-use" technology.

The Parliament on Tuesday night approved proposals put forward by Dutch parliamentarian Marietje Schaake that would require the European Commission, the E.U.'s executive branch, to regularly update a list of restricted products and countries.

Dual-use products can be used for civilian purposes but also by police or the military. "In the wrong hands certain technologies can become effective weapons," said Schaake in an address to Parliament Tuesday. Dual-use technologies used by repressive regimes too often wear the "Made in Europe" label, she said.

The global surveillance industry is worth about US$5 billion a year, according to Privacy International. "The capabilities of surveillance technology have grown hugely in the past decade -- in the hands of a repressive regime, this equipment eradicates free speech, quashes dissent and places dissidents at the mercy of ruling powers as effectively as guns and bombs," the organization said in a blog post.

Parliamentarians want stricter control on dual-use items to prevent them falling into the hands of repressive regimes and dictatorships. Companies would be required to ask for export authorization if they have reason to believe that certain exports might harm human rights.

"In countries like Ethiopia, Sudan and Cuba this use of ICTs for repression is rampant. Iran is building a 'Halal-internet,' disconnected from the World Wide Web. The required technology, infrastructure, know-how or operational support should no longer come from within the E.U.," Schaake said.

Fellow member of parliament Bernd Lange agreed. "Technological progress allows us to constantly review the international control lists for dual-use items. An upgraded E.U. control system will guarantee that the E.U. knows whether something potentially dangerous is being sold - and to whom," Lange said Wednesday in a statement.

A study by the OpenNet Initiative earlier this year found that political censorship is pervasive in seven countries including China, Syria and Burma, and is widespread in many others.

In the past year, Irish company Cellusys and Italian company Area SpA were reported to have sold dual-use technology to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, questions were asked in the Dutch parliament about which countries Netherlands-based surveillance companies Group 2000 and Digivox sell to.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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