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Spy tech exports from Europe face tighter scrutiny

Strasbourg mulls new rules on surveillance software by 2013

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The EU could soon introduce rules to monitor the deployment of internet censorship technology in autocratic regimes including China and Saudi Arabia.

The European Parliament is proposing a resolution to strengthen the accountability of countries that export gear used to block websites and eavesdrop on mobile communications.

"There is a race between those harnessing new media to the purpose of liberation and those who seek to use it for repression," said Richard Howitt, a British Labour-party MEP and the investigator appointed to look into the issue.

"I don't hesitate to say Vodafone must learn from doing Mubarak's bidding," he said in a canned statement, referring to the telco sending out pro-government propaganda and suspending its services in Egypt at President Hosni Mubarak's request weeks before a revolution forced the head of state to resign.

The resolution, which is expected to be passed in Strasbourg on Thursday, will ask the European Commission to come up with rules for improving oversight of EU countries' exports of tools that can be used for censorship by next year.

The use of surveillance, censoring and spy software came to light after nations bent on restricting access to information and communication channels turned to countries where freedom of speech and other human rights are supposed to be upheld.

Last year Lord David Alton of Liverpool called on the UK government to ban the export of espionage software and equipment, and questioned sales of Blighty-made gear to Iran and Yemen.

Foreign Office minister Lord David Howell of Guildford replied that there was "no evidence of controlled military goods exported from the United Kingdom being used for internal repression in the Middle East and North Africa".

However, he also said that "surveillance equipment, including telephone intercept equipment, covers a wide variety of equipment and software, and generally is not controlled because of its use for a wide variety of legitimate uses and its easy and widespread availability".

The resolution before the European Parliament also includes requests for EU member states to cooperate more consistently with the International Criminal Court for full and open investigations into secret renditions and for increased efforts to get everyone to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. ®

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