By Andy Greenberg
October 14, 2010
Here’s a lesson for corporations selling high tech surveillance equipment to digitally repressive regimes: The taint of dictatorship isn’t easy to wash off, even after a year of public relations scrubbing.
Access Now, a free speech organization, launched a ”No To Nokia” Wednesday that’s quickly spreading through Facebook and Twitter, criticizing the company’s dealings with the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime in Iran and calling on Nokia to “completely end all sales, support, and service of tracking and surveillance technology to governments with a record of human rights abuses.”
That will be a tough demand for Nokia to satisfy: In fact, the company has said it already exited the Iranian business more than a year ago.
In a to the European Parliament in June, Nokia Siemens admitted that it had sold “lawful intercept” capabilities to Iranian data providers over several years, equipment that could be used to identify and track political dissidents or other opponents of Iran’s dictatorship. Those statements confirmed from the Wall Street Journal a year before that accused Nokia Siemens, a joint venture between the Finnish mobile provider and the German tech conglomerate, of supplying Iran with technology it used to find and imprison political opponents, reports that the company strenuously denied at the time.
The company’s testimony in the European Parliamentary hearing on information technology and human rights abuses sounded much like the confession and policy promises that Access’s petitioners are now looking for:
While we halted all work related to monitoring centers in Iran in 2009, including service and support, we believe that we should have understood the issues in Iran better in advance and addressed them more proactively. There have been credible reports from Iran that telecommunications monitoring has been used as a tool to suppress dissent and freedom of speech. We deplore such use of a technology that can bring so many positive benefits to society – and that, in fact, we believe has brought so many positive benefits to Iran.
But Nokia’s Siemens’ Iran public relations morass has only widened, thanks in part to a lawsuit brought by one Iranian, 56-year-old Isa Saharkhiz, in a Virginia Court. Saharkiz, a journalist and political dissident, was arrested and imprisoned after his Nokia phone was tracked by the company’s Intelligence Solutions law enforcement tracking technology. While Saharkiz has been in prison for the past 14 months, he and his son Mehdi Saharkiz have accused Nokia Siemens in a civil complaint of “aiding and abetting the undemocratic, tyrannical and repressive Iranian government’s humiliation, torture and unconscionable human rights abuses.”
You can read the latest version of the complaint .
Nokia Siemens has in court that it’s not liable for how its foreign customers use its technology under the U.S.’s Electronic Communications Privacy Act. But the Electronic Frontier Foundation has called on the company to drop that defense and take legal responsibility for Saharkiz’s sad fate. “The time is now for Nokia to ‘be accountable’ for its role in the repression of Mr. Saharkhiz and likely thousands of others. And it must do so not just in the press room, but in the court case, dropping its cynical claims that corporations should never be held accountable for their role in human rights violations,” the EFF’s Eddan Katz writes in a .
I’ve asked Nokia for comment and will update when I hear from the company.
The moral of the story, particularly for companies like IBM that have : Once you’ve put your foot in a human rights quagmire, even defending yourself in court will only sink you deeper.