With the advent of low-cost and readily available high tech computer equipment and software throughout the world, companies in this field have come under increasing scrutiny by lawmakers when such tools end up in the hands of repressive regimes. Just this week, three U.S. Senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Commerce John Bryson requesting additional information related the potential use of U.S. technology by the Syrian regime for human rights abuses. The letter says, in part:
” … we are deeply concerned about the reported sale of Internet monitoring and censorship technology to Syria. In addition, we are troubled by the fact that such equipment has reportedly been purchased from American companies, and it may be aiding the Syrian regime’s ongoing crackdown on peaceful protesters and human rights activists.”
The bipartisan Congressional request for information from Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Bob Casey, Jr. (D-Penn.), and Chris A. Coons (D-Del.) puts at least two California companies — NetApp, Inc. and Blue Coat Systems — in the direct political crosshairs of the U.S. Congress as well as at least two federal agencies responsible for enforcing U.S. export control laws. While not mentioned in this particular letter, Hewlett-Packard seems to be a subject of related inquires. In a statement released to the media, an HP spokesman said:
“HP’s policy is to comply with all U.S. export control laws and regulations. We do not have any employees or facilities in Syria, and our sales to parties in that country have been limited to items that are consistent with U.S. law and licensing policy on telecommunications products … Compliance with U.S. and international trade laws are of the highest priority for HP.”
Events in Syria are deteriorating on a daily basis which only has compounded an already dismal human rights record that has existed for as long as the Assad regime (including the father) has been in power. Security interests are also a significant concern to the United States such as Syria’s cozy relationship with radical Iranian mullahs, among others. U.S. technology exports to this part of the world has been controlled for some time; however, the system is not foolproof. And even with existing controls and good compliance by U.S. companies, bad actors can find ways around it. This will likely be the case no matter controls governments put in place; we can it make it difficult but we will always need to police it.
Congress will and should inquire into these matters in Syria and other places where U.S. high tech products are being used illegally or for nefarious ends that harm U.S. security and foreign policy interests. We can expect continued robust Congressional oversight this area for years to come. For U.S. and foreign companies that use U.S. technology, this environment poses legal and public relations challenges that can become quite costly if not handled correctly.
As federal government contractors, for example, these companies stand to lose significant sources of business from U.S. taxpayers if they fail to cooperate or, worse, if they are found to have violated U.S. export control laws. There is insufficient information in the Congressional letter or news accounts to know for certain if there were violations of U.S. export control laws in this case. If past Congressional inquiries in this field are any indication, we will know soon enough.
One of the best known and most recent case of U.S. Congressional scrutiny of these matters involves Google and its business in China. The Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) that monitors rule of law and human rights in China has held hearings on the subject, as has the House Committee on Foreign Affairs (HCFA). On March 10, 2010, Google was front and center at an HCFA hearing titled, “The Google Predicament: Transforming U.S. Cyberspace Policy to Advance Democracy, Security, and Trade.” Google has since retained an army of DC lawyers and lobbyists to manage their DC and regulatory issues.
Companies such as Google, HP, and the ones mentioned in this Congressional letter, have compliance programs to prevent their technology from falling into the wrong hands; however, this has never stopped a Congressional inquiry. And there is no doubt these companies are taking this inquiries seriously. There are many public policy and legal issues that arise in these cases and, unlike the weapons of choice during the Cold War, the cyber and computer-based technologies are not easily plugged in to an export control system that was designed for another era.
A conundrum for the U.S. government is that “people to people” programs have been an important foreign policy tool for quite some time. Computers, the internet, smart phones have become essential means to expand that element of our efforts. At the same time, U.S. export control laws have made it somewhat challenging to grow these programs in places such as Syria, Iran, Cuba, and several others.
It will be interesting to see how this Syria case, and others like it, factor into Congressional and Obama Administration efforts to reform the U.S. export control system. Checks and balances. Do we still do that in this town?
You can read the Congressional letter here.