EU IT companies to get guidance on human rights issues

Two Irish IT companies face criticism for selling to Syria

Just as European surveillance and mobile-message filtering companies come under increasing pressure to safeguard human rights, two Irish companies have been reported as selling tech to the Syrian regime that is being used to thwart civil rights protesters.

The European Commission announced a year-long project to develop sector-specific guidance on the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, saying that the IT sector could benefit from targeted advice. The IT sector was selected, along with employment and recruitment agencies, and the oil and gas industry, by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB).

The guidance developed through this project will be based on the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and is due to be completed by the end of 2012.

The commissioner responsible for the Digital Agenda in Europe, Neelie Kroes, said this process will make it easier for makers and users of IT products and services to understand the impact their technology has on human rights across the world.

"Public and private actors cannot ignore their responsibilities. If western technology is being used by repressive governments to identify innocent citizens and put their life or freedom in danger, then I think we -- manufacturers, suppliers, citizens and democratic governments -- ought to know," said Kroes.

"I am clear that any action taken needs to have strong industry involvement. This reflects the strong industry interest in getting this right -- given that being found to provide the tools of repression is (even leaving aside any moral issues) extremely bad corporate PR," she added.

Meanwhile, bad PR is what Irish tech companies Cellusys and AdaptiveMobile found themselves dealing with on Wednesday, after news was broken by Bloomberg that they had supplied technology to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Cellusys and AdaptiveMobile, both based in Dublin, make text message management and filtering systems that are allegedly being used by Syrian authorities to block human rights protesters' text messages when they contain politically sensitive terms such as "revolution" or "demonstration."

Human rights groups have criticized the companies, saying they were irresponsible in selling filtering technology to Syria. However, Cellusys CEO Dawood Ghalaieny is reported as saying his company is not responsible for what happens with the technology after it is sold. "Once they have the systems, they control it," he said, according to Bloomberg. Cellusys products are designed to keep mobile networks free from spam and viruses, he added.

AdaptiveMobile, meanwhile, said that it has never provided services to the Syrian government. It did sell a standard SMS spam and MMS antivirus product to MTN Syria (Syria's second largest mobile phone operator) in 2008. But "given the changing political situation in the region," AdaptiveMobile decided not to renew the contract expired when it expired last year.

Last month, Dutch Green party MP Arjan el Fassed called for a law to outright ban the sales of surveillance technology to countries that violate human rights and asked Netherlands-based surveillance companies Group 2000 and Digivox which countries they sell to.

Dutch member of the European Parliament Marietje Schaake has also called for tough rules for the whole European Union. "We cannot just trust [technology companies] on their good intentions because businesses are in the business of making money. And sometimes this is at the expense of any respect for human rights," she said.

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

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