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'No spyware for repressive regimes': Germany's Foreign Minister speaks out against surveillance tech exports

Last Friday, the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle added his voice to calls for tighter control of EU surveillance technology exports, bolstering the momentum of a growing pan-European movement.

Speaking in Berlin at an Internet and Human Rights conference hosted by the German Foreign Office, Westerwelle described the devastating effect that surveillance technology can have on fledgling democratic and civil rights movements:

Cyberspace allows political activists to organize. But at the same time social media can be infiltrated. Surveillance technologies can monitor senders and receivers of political information alike. Repressive regimes can use the internet to disorganize, deceive, or even identify and arrest oppositional forces. In repressive regimes political activists are confronted with threats to their personal security. These regimes must not be given the technical means to spy on and harass their citizens.

The current EU export regime does not enforce any regulation of surveillance technology exports, meaning that most European technology firms are free to sell their wares to repressive regimes such as Bahrain and Turkmenistan. Westerwelle’s comments on surveillance technology echo earlier calls from the French Secretary of State for the Digital Economy, members of the Dutch Green Party and the EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda to close this glaring loophole in the regulations. And in April of this year, member states gave near-unanimous support to a resolution of the European Parliament that invited the EC to propose revised regulations for surveillance technology exports by 2013.

Reports of Westerwelle’s speech in the German online media have seized on the Minister’s comments as a clear statement of intent to push for an EU-wide ban on the export of surveillance technology to repressive regimes. However, it is not clear from his speech that Germany intends to take any decisive action at an EU-level beyond supporting the EC’s mandate to reconsider export regulations.

In spite of this, the Minister’s comments are an important indication that this issue is moving up the agenda on a national level. Given that any changes proposed by the EC would not come into force for many months, it is vital that individual member states start exercising their discretionary powers to curb such exports now. Every day that their surveillance technologies are on sale to repressive regimes, European countries become further implicated in human rights infringements across the world; it's time for the region's big exporters to finally put their foot down.

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