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As Democracy Summit Wraps, US Restricts Exports of Cyber Tools Used for Repression

December 13, 2021

As the two-day virtual Summit for Democracy hosted by President Joe Biden wrapped up on Friday, the U.S., Australia, Denmark and Norway announced an export control program to monitor and restrict the spread of technologies used to violate human rights.

“We focused on the need to empower human rights defenders" and ensure that technology "is used to advance democracies to lift people up, not to hold them down,” Biden said during his closing remarks.

The Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative seeks to address the problem of authoritarian governments misusing dual-use technologies to surveil and hack into the communications of political opponents, journalists, activists and minority communities.

The signees will work to develop a voluntary, written code of conduct intended to use human rights criteria to guide export licensing policy and practices, according to the White House.

The goal is to achieve a stronger agreement involving more governments to better control licenses for these technologies that can be used to violate human rights, said a senior administration official in a briefing to reporters.

“To make sure that these technologies are used for good and not for ill,” the official said.

These restrictions are needed, said Brett Bruen, director of global engagement during the Obama administration and president of the consulting firm Global Situation Room.

“If indeed democratic ideals or, at the very least, less violation of human rights norms is what we are going to require and expect from countries around the world, then there have to be some consequences,” he said.

The U.S. has taken action recently to put NSO, an Israeli company and maker of the Pegasus spyware, on a list of restricted companies. Pegasus was used to infect the smartphones of journalists and officials, essentially turning them into spying devices, allowing the user to read the targets' messages and files, track their location, even turn on their cameras without their knowledge.

Initiative for Democratic Renewal

During the summit, leaders were encouraged to make pledges and commitments to bolster democracy and human rights.

For its part, the U.S. announced the establishment of the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, a series of foreign assistance initiatives of up to $424.4 million in the coming year, subject to congressional approval.

The initiative includes funds to support independent media, strengthen anti-corruption efforts, empower reformers, labor unions and marginalized groups, and advance technology that supports democracy and defends free and fair elections.

Transparency International, a global civil society organization working in the fight against corruption, said the summit’s initial outcomes are promising, but more needs to be done.

“Other countries did not step up and commit to specific commitments the way the U.S. has, and so that is a concern,” Gary Kalman, director of Transparency International’s U.S. office, told VOA. “What are they actually going to come up with? They have a little bit more time; the U.S. government is giving them until January to come back with commitments.”

But Bruen said $424.4 million would barely meet the needs of bolstering democracy globally and characterized it as “regifting.”

“These are initiatives and monies that have been allocated already, generally, for democracy, for the rule of law and human rights,” Bruen said. “They [the Biden administration] get to repurpose them for a new announcement but what we're not seeing here are really substantial sums that are being put on the table.”

Democracy is also under attack by the global rise of populism, white supremacy and extremism, said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

“Polarization is undermining democratic institutions. Science and reason are under siege,” Guterres said. “All of this is eroding trust between people and democratic leaders and institutions.”

An in-person summit is planned, a year from now.

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