An Iranian boycott of Nokia will not stop surveillance, say Leslie Harris and John Morris. But it may make telecommunications companies think twice about doing business with oppressive regimes
Some Nokia customers in Iran are attempting to organise a boycott of the wake of charges that the company assisted the government in tapping cell phones and interfering with text messages during the recent political protests.
While a boycott may encourage Nokia to rethink how it does business in difficult markets, switching cell phone providers is unlikely to provide Iranians with more protection against government snooping. Indeed, wiretapping capability is not unique to Nokia Siemens Network, the independent joint venture providing equipment and service in Iran. Those capabilities date back to a governmental mandate imposed by none other than the US Government itself. Fifteen years ago, the US Congress — at the request of the FBI — mandated that telephone networks, and the equipment manufacturers that build their equipment, MUST build flexible wiretapping capability into the equipment. That law, the “Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act” (CALEA), led to similar mandates around the world. A few years ago, the FBI came back and successfully demanded the CALEA wiretapping mandates be extended to some Internet services.
Let’s be blunt: there’s nothing unique about a wiretapping capability being built into the Iranian wireless system. Manufacturers like Nokia and Cisco and others have complied with the US mandate — as well as similar mandates from many other nations — and have built wiretapping capability into their network equipment. It is a standard capability and both American and European phone companies include it as a matter of course. US policy makers were largely indifferent during the domestic debates over CALEA to the global implications of requiring that wiretapping be built into the telephone and Internet networks and seem largely incapable of connecting the CALEA mandate to the technically sophisticated wiretapping occuring today in Iran.
Of course, the concern does not end there. There is a lot we don’t know about the recent events in Iran, including whether Nokia Siemens provided any additional technology or technical assistance to the Iranian regime to cut off communications. But even if it didn’t, as the company claims, we also don’t know whether the company considered the human rights risk posed by offering telecommunications services to the Iranian market, nor do we know if the company took additional steps to safeguard the rights of its customers.
To be sure, the telecommunications and information services that western companies provide to users in repressive countries are themselves enablers of free expression and access to information. But as many other companies have learned, the same services that can empower users can be used to violate their rights. It’s not enough to say that the services offered are in and of themselves valuable, or that in the absence of foreign providers, domestic companies more likely to bend to the demands of government would provide the services. Companies must take the time to chart a responsible path forward when they enter markets where human rights are at risk. When the government calls, it is usually too late.
Leslie Harris is the President and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology; John Morris is CDT’s General Counsel