A group of US lawmakers have asked the state department to investigate whether Chinese technology firm Huawei Technologies Co. has violated US sanctions on Iran by supplying Tehran with sensitive communications technology used for censorship. Iran is of course the bogeyman en vogue and Huawei is a soft target undermining the reliance of Western technology for government-level filtering in repressive nations. By KHADIJA PATEL.
An in-depth investigation by the Wall Street Journal last October claimed recent contracts between Huawei and the two largest mobile carriers in Iran, Mobile Communication Co. of Iran (MCCI) and MTN Irancell, will allow police to track the locations of mobile phone users.
The newspaper’s findings against Huawei are certainly damning. Huawei is said to have won a contract with MCCI to provide equipment that enables the company and police to track people based on the location of their phones. Huawei is also said to have helped MTN Irancell set up a mobile-phone news service, and according to one insider present at a meeting between the companies, Huawei sold their pitch on the basis that their Chinese background best positioned them with expertise in censoring news. Huawei is also said to occasionally partner with Zaeim Electronic Industries Co., an Iranian electronics firm whose clients include the likes of the Iranian intelligence and defence ministries and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
These are of course serious allegations and the US state department has begun an investigation, saying it “shares the concern of any potential export of technology to Iran that is to be used specifically to disrupt, monitor or suppress communication of the people of Iran.”
The investigation was prompted by a letter from a group of six lawmakers asking the state department to investigate “whether Huawei and other telecommunications firms have violated [the law] by providing sensitive technology to the Iranian government that is or has been used to restrict the speech of the Iranian people and the free flow of unbiased information in Iran.”
Relying heavily on evidence provided by the Wall Street Journal, the congressmen recommend the Chinese company be subject to sanctions prohibiting the US government from entering into or renewing a contract with Huawei. If the state department does indeed unearth sinister links between Huawei and the Iranian government’s culture of censorship, American law will severely inhibit the Chinese firm from winning lucrative government contracts.
The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act, passed by the US Congress in 2010, imposes trade sanctions on Iran and prohibits government contracts with companies that export sensitive telecommunications technology to the country.
Huawei however have rubbished the suspicion of its business practices in Iran. “One of the fundamental principles governing Huawei’s global operations is to be in strict compliance with all relevant international and local laws and regulations, including applicable US laws and regulations,” the company said in a statement. “Unfortunately, a few members of Congress continue to cite inaccurate media reports that include groundless allegations and inaccuracies.”
A Huawei spokeswoman also pointed out that the company did not have any current contracts with the American government.
While Huawei’s substantial investment into the South African economy has been warmly received by our government, the Americans have been decidedly more guarded in their welcome to the Chinese firm’s foray into the land of free and fair.
Last October the US department of commerce barred Huawei from participating in the construction of a national wireless network for emergency responders citing “national security concerns”. The company’s participation would have involved testing the interoperability of elements of the wireless network, which is meant for use by police officers, fire fighters and emergency workers. American regulators also blocked Huawei from three acquisitions, and last year forced it to divest from its purchase of a defunct cloud-computing company called 3Leaf.
Suspicion of Huawei is founded in the belief that the company acts as a clandestine annex of the Chinese military, implying that the company could be used to spy on behalf of the government in Beijing. Huawei’s purported links to the Chinese military stem from the background of its reclusive founder and CEO, Ren Zhengfei who once served in the People’s Liberation Army as a telecom technician. Huawei, however, has staunchly defended itself, claiming that allegations the company has violated security rules are baseless. William Plummer, Huawei’s vice president of external affairs, noted in a statement last year the company has been “unfairly challenged due to vague supposed security concerns that have never been substantiated.”
“Playing Huawei as a pawn in some geopolitical game of chess is doing nothing more than threatening US jobs, investment, competition and innovation,” he said.
Huawei is of course no small fry. After raking in $27-billion in revenue in 2010, Huawei pleased Forbes magazine enough to rank No. 352 on its Global 500 list. Billed the world’s second-largest supplier of telecom and Internet gear, the company is on course to replace Sweden’s Ericsson as the world’s biggest manufacturer of communications equipment.
A bad image, however, could severely inhibit that progress. Keen to clean up its murky image in the US, the company announced last December that it was scaling back its operations in Iran due to the “increasingly complex situation” in the country.
Despite the best efforts of technology companies however, censorship equipment – particularly Western made censorship equipment – still does make its way to draconian governments.
Last year, the US department of commerce placed restrictions on an individual and a company in the United Arab Emirates for supplying Syria with Internet-filtering devices made by Blue Coat Systems Inc. The California-based company shipped the appliances – which can block websites or record when people visit them – to a distributor in the UAE, believing they were destined for a department of the Iraqi government. They ended up in Syria with Bashar Al-Assad at the controls and a Facebook page promoting the “Syrian Revolution” chief among the barred pages.
In an OpenNet Initiative report Helmi Noman and Jillian C. York found that nine countries – Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Sudan, and Tunisia – “utilise Western-made tools for the purpose of blocking social and political content, effectively blocking a total of over 20-million Internet users from accessing such websites.”
Implicating the likes of McAfee, governments rely on “filtering” software to censor content they deem objectionable. York and Noman point out however “what a regime sees as objectionable can – and often does – fall within the range of speech protected by international frameworks such as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
“Western companies are playing a role in the national politics of many countries around the world. By making their software available to the regimes, they are potentially taking sides against citizens and activists who are prevented from accessing and disseminating content thanks in part to filtering software,” they add.
At a time when the US is itself embroiled in heated national debate on Internet censorship, the market for filtering tools and services has grown in response to the growing call for increased Internet regulation. Ultimately the discussion of censorship equipment has fallen victim to the vagaries of politics.
One person’s Huawei, it seems, is another’s McAfee. DM
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