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