Much has been said about the role social media has come to play in the global landscape over the last few years. Whether one sees it as the tool of revolutions or not, there is no denying its utility as a means of realtime communication - as a medium to connect, share, and disseminate news and information across borders. Facebook, Twitter, and other media played an integral role in organizing the socio-political upheavals in Egypt, Libya, and across the Middle East and North Africa, allowing those oppressed and marginalized by despotic regimes to communicate and organize, and to expose human rights violations.
Of course, social and other forms of digital media have just as much potential for ill as they do for use among democracy advocates - something that has not gone unnoticed in the White House. According to the Washington Post, President Obama will today issue an executive order that gives U.S. officials the ability to impose sanctions on foreign bodies that use these “new technologies” to carry out human rights violations.
The report cites cellphone tracking and Internet monitoring as chief among those abuses, reflecting the recent actions of authoritarian regimes that have used kill switches, illegal wire-tapping, etc. to stem and/or monitor web-based communication among those in opposition - abuses perpetrated not only by governments in Libya and Egypt, but more recently in Iran and Syria as well.
The report, which cites senior administration officials, holds that President Obama will issue the executive order on Monday during a speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, using the opportunity to acknowledge that U.S. national security must be updated to reflect a world that is being rapidly transformed by the application of new technologies. The order is also said to be a direct response to to criticism over the country's (and the administration's) inaction in the face of the Syrian government's bloody crackdown, which has led to the death of thousands of civilians.
Syrian forces have reportedly been using technology to track their opposition, and “Syrian officials may also have tracked satellite phones and computer addresses to locate a group of foreign journalists in February who were covering the siege of the city of Homs,” according to the Washington Post. During the attacks in February, two journalists seeking refuge were killed, one of them an American working for the Sunday Times of London.
The executive order, on which the Washington Post alone was briefed, reportedly states that “the same GPS, satellite communications, mobile phone, and Internet technology employed by democracy activists across the Middle East and North Africa is being used against them by the regimes in Syria and Iran … and the new steps are designed primarily to target companies explicitly aiding authoritarian governments with new technology that assists in civilian repression.”
But what is perhaps most relevant to the tech industry is that the Executive Order contains provisions that aim to target companies that design or provide aid authoritarian governments with technology that helps them repress or monitor their civilians. As reports have surfaced that American technology is being used by the Syrian government to monitor and censor its citizens, senior administrations reportedly said that “the measures should prompt all companies to think harder about how the technology they are providing to other countries might be employed and to take steps to ensure that it is not used in harmful ways.”
While it is easy to welcome sanctions against those clearly and transparently using technology to assist in human rights violations and to oppress large groups of people, beyond the extremes, this kind of stuff can quickly get into thorny territory. It is not always so easy to divorce those using “new technology” to impose restrictions on access or monitor others - from the opposite. The Executive Order comes close on the heels of the disruption and reported cyberattack on an American website that has been covering “China's biggest political scandal in decades.” It is not certain whether the attack came from the Chinese government itself, or some third-party trying to make it look like the government was responsible.
Obama's Order is specifically geared towards the situations in Iran and Syria, but opens the doors to sanctions on other foreign bodies in the future. It will reportedly be used only in extreme circumstances, and likely on a case-by-case basis.
On a bright note for American tech companies, the Obama Administration will also be looking to them to develop more effective ways to help those afflicted in human rights abuses communicate and organize, according to the report:
The president will also announce a set of U.S. development "challenge" grants designed to encourage technology companies to develop new ways to help residents in countries vulnerable to mass killings better detect and quickly alert others to impending dangers.
Update: More on today's speech from The Atlantic here.