Nokia-Siemens Networks on Wednesday (2 June) admitted its share of the blame for Iran's brutal crackdown on anti-government demonstrators last year after selling mobile phone surveillance to the authoritarian regime.
"We absolutely do find ourselves in a tricky situation and need the help of people in this room to help us navigate in these challenging times," Barry French, head of marketing and corporate affairs with Nokia-Siemens Networks, a joint venture of Nokia (NOK) and Siemens (SI), told MEPs during a hearing on human rights and new information technologies.
The Finnish-German telecoms joint venture was at the centre of an ethics controversy last year when it emerged that it had supplied surveillance technology to two Iranian mobile phone operators. The technology was used to track down dissidents amid the mass protests following the contested re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009.
Apart from the crackdown on demonstrators, which saw 36 confirmed deaths, Iranian authorities blocked websites such as Twitter and Facebook, jammed and tracked cell phone calls and text messages. They used the so-called monitoring centre acquired from Nokia-Siemens in 2008 to carry out the work.
Mr French maintained that the surveillance technology was part of the legal requirements imposed by governments all over the world, including in the EU and US for mobile phone operators to get a licence.
"We deplore the use of this technology against dissidents," he said, adding that his company has learned its "lesson" and has meanwhile pulled out of the "monitoring centre business."
Nokia-Siemens Networks is however still selling "passive" interception capabilities, which need "instructions" – usually accompanied by a police warrant – as to what to intercept and where to send the data.
Mr French said that this technology helps police and prosecutors track down criminals and terrorists around the world and that there are international standards requiring such capabilities.
But he agreed to the need for establishing codes of conduct for European companies when dealing with repressive regimes.
Reporters Without Borders, an international organisation advocating freedom of speech, stressed the role of the EU in preventing human rights infringements facilitated by European companies.
"The EU needs to encourage European companies to sit down and carve out a voluntary code of conduct when dealing with repressive regimes," the group's Lucie Morillon said during the parliamentary hearing.
She pointed to the US, where Congress has recently passed the "Global Freedom Act," preventing companies from collaborating with regimes engaging in censorship and human rights violations.
If the EU adopted something similar, it would also make it easier for European companies to resist pressure from hostile regimes to engage in such practices, she argued.
"EU diplomats should also press more to eliminate Internet censorship, they should visit jailed 'netizens' and bilateral agreements should not only look at human rights in general, but also at internet rights," she added.
Rolf Timans, head of the human rights and democratisation unit in the European Commission, rejected the idea of legal restrictions for EU companies.
But he welcomed the idea of "corporate voluntary agreements" and common guidelines for European companies when dealing with these "tricky issues."