In early May, the Congolese government inked a $5.6 million deal with Mer Group, an Israeli security consulting firm with deep links to the Israeli intelligence services. Mer sells surveillance tools to foreign security forces, and its signature product is a big data analytics system called the Strategic Actionable Intelligence Platform, which allows users to penetrate closed forums and groups, monitor their activities, and run clandestine investigations.

The Congolese government has not explained why it signed the deal. But it seems no coincidence that the country’s embattled president, Joseph Kabila, who is facing a political crisis at home, is suddenly interested in technology that he could easily use against dissidents. After Kabila overstayed his constitutionally mandated term, which expired last December, the country erupted in protest. Only following repeated demonstrations and heavy international pressure did he agree to hold national elections by the end of the year. But there is a strong suspicion that Kabila has no intention of giving up power, at least not without a fight. If that is the case, that fight will most likely involve dividing the opposition, persecuting opponents, and stifling dissent.

Steven Feldstein

Nonresident Fellow
Democracy and Rule of Law Program

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Mer’s suite of surveillance tools will certainly help in that regard. With human rights and political activists increasingly organizing online, an authoritarian leader gains a crucial advantage when he or she can spy on his or her opponents’ plans. If the state security forces in Congo can identify and break up the leadership circles of the opposition and civil society groups that will drive protests in Kinshasa, they can bolster Kabila’s chances of winning (or, what is more accurate, stealing) an election considerably.

What’s unnerving is that Mer is not unique. As the watchdog group Privacy International observed in a recent report on the surveillance industry, 27 Israeli companies and 122 U.S.-based companies offer surveillance and intrusion technology to a variety of clients. Although these sales are not exactly illegal, they are pushing ethical bounds. As a result, governments are starting to assert a greater degree of scrutiny over such transactions. The European Commission, for example, has proposed controlling the export of surveillance technology on human rights grounds. What’s more, Freedom House’s report Freedom on the Net 2016 noted that two-thirds of all Internet users reside in countries where “criticism of the government, military, or ruling family are subject to censorship,” and that in the past year alone, authorities in 38 countries made arrests based solely on the content of social media posts. It is hard to say how many of these arrests resulted from technology peddled by companies such as Mer, but democracy groups estimate that 25 countries have implemented technical attacks against government critics and human rights groups using similar products.

Digital surveillance, however, is just one of the many tools available to governments that are bent on repressing dissent. One of the more popular and effective strategies is generating targeted network outages. If dissatisfaction and protests roil a particular province, the go-to response is to shut off local Internet access and create an information blackout. In Cameroon, President Paul Biya, who has ruled single-handedly and sometimes brutally for the past 35 years, used this tactic last year to quell protests in the Anglophone regions of the country over perceived economic and political discrimination by the Francophone majority. Biya’s response was quick and harsh. He pressured mobile operators to cut connections and deny Internet service to the affected regions. For 93 days, citizens in those areas were unable to communicate internally or with the outside world. By the time the government restored Internet access, the economic damage was significant—an estimated loss of over $3 million.

Internet blackouts are used to suppress dissent all over the world. The advocacy organization Access Now reported 15 documented shutdowns in 2015, including in Brazil, India, and Turkey. By 2016, the list of documented shutdowns had expanded to 56 and included countries such as Algeria, Ethiopia, and Pakistan. In addition, repressive governments seek to manipulate online discussions through the spread of propaganda; limit Internet access by making it unaffordable; and physically harass, intimidate, or arrest online activists. Such regimes also initiate state-sponsored cyberattacks against civil society organizations, political dissidents, and journalists, and they censor information via IP blocking (preventing connections from specific IP addresses), DNS filtering (restricting requests to access blacklisted websites), and TCP resets (tampering with the exchange of information necessary to set up an Internet connection).

HOW ADVOCACY GROUPS SHOULD RESPOND

Although the UN Human Rights Council has increasingly recognized that offline rights, such as the right to free speech and the right to peaceful assembly, should apply online as well, human rights law does not include explicit protections for online expression and association. As David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, notes, the closest protection lies in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The first Article 19 holds that “everyone has the right . . . to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” But the issue is that there is no specific, internationally recognized right to the Internet. These two articles bring international law closer to recognizing such a right, but norms are still catching up to technological advances, and repressive governments have an interest in slowing down any adoption.

Part of the burden for policy advocates, therefore, is to make a persuasive public case for either establishing a standalone right to online expression and association or elevating the two Article 19s as a de facto stand-in. This will require greater awareness building, campaigning, and public outrage every time a government undertakes an egregious action limiting citizens’ online rights, such as the banning of social media networks and mobile Internet services in Kashmir by the Indian government. Groups such as Access Now have taken important steps to build awareness of Internet shutdowns through the #KeepItOn campaign, but such efforts need to be supplemented by other creative measures. One proposal in Africa that has gained some attention is to have the African Network Information Center (AFRINIC), an agency responsible for managing and allocating IP addresses, deny distribution to government-owned entities in states that have enacted shutdowns. Such an idea would, for the first time, apply a direct cost to governments that choose to block Internet access. Although the proposal is overly broad in its formulation, and AFRINIC staff have determined that it would be completely impractical to implement in its current form, it does signify a greater push by activists to think outside the box in countering online restrictions.

Advocates should also galvanize the private sector to pressure the governments they work with to respect the right to the Internet by threatening to pull their investments. Just as activists named and shamed Nike and the Gap into ending child labor in their Vietnamese sweatshops, so they should similarly call out countries that harass, spy on, or disrupt or deny Internet access to its citizens. Ethiopia, for example, has been quick to enact draconian restrictions on Internet and mobile communications, including massive online monitoring and surveillance. Last October, following months of antigovernment protests across the country, Addis Ababa shut down all mobile Internet access and detained thousands of civilians. Advocacy groups should pressure companies to reconsider investing in Ethiopia, one of the many East African countries that corporations have moved to from Asia in search of more cost-effective labor pools in textile and garment manufacturing. Activists need to put a reputational element into play—impelling the public to question whether it is morally acceptable for a socially conscious company such as H&M, for example to manufacture its clothing in a country that systematically monitors, harasses, and denies Internet access to its people.

For these strategies to work, the human rights community needs the right tools, resources, and capabilities. Enhancing early warning systems for when network outages are about to occur and improving the ability to monitor when governments interfere with online activity will enable activists to sound the alarm and mobilize the international community to condemn the behavior. Dissidents in repressive countries must do their due diligence as well, adopting the right habits and techniques to circumvent government restrictions and enhance their digital security. Policy advocates must raise their voices about restrictions on Internet access and online surveillance and harassment, and connect with key stakeholders—foreign embassies, telecommunications companies, Internet service providers, and other decision-makers—in order to harness their collective influence over repressive governments.

Likewise, companies that peddle sophisticated surveillance and intrusion technology to repressive governments, such as Mer, should face pressure. Activists should insist that lawmakers explicitly include human rights considerations in their export-control policies. In other words, when the United States or the EU is determining whether to allow the sale of a technology to a particular country, its regulators ought to give equal weight to potential human rights risks, in addition to factoring in national security concerns and the prospective economic benefits. Just as countries restrict arms sales based on a hierarchy of considerations, including the potential for misuse, so should they scrutinize and restrict the sale of sensitive technology.

So far, the human rights community has been unable to launch a consistent and successful campaign against repressive governments that restrict the Internet or to spur the creation of an international norm to protect Internet access. This is partly because the issue is still nascent and has yet to gain critical public awareness. But it is also worth asking whether human rights groups are prioritizing access to the Internet as fully as they are capable of doing: for most groups, this issue does not rank as a first- or even second-order priority. As long as the international community continues to give a free pass to companies such as Mer, they will continue to peddle products to authoritarian governments that allow them to spy on their citizens, harass their opponents, and deny people access to the Internet.

This article was originally published in Foreign Affairs.