Surveillance and Human Rights? Teliasonera's Business Model

Friday 16 November 2012

Back in April I reported at Slate on how a Swedish telecommunications firm was linked to spy agencies in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Georgia, facilitating crackdowns on dissident politicians and independent journalists.

Teliasonera, headquartered in Stockholm, was uncovered by a brilliant team of Swedish reporters to have allowed “black box” probes to be fitted within their telecommunications networks, which enabled security services and police to monitor, in real-time, all communications passing through, including texts, internet traffic and phone calls. The mass surveillance had reportedly been used in several instances, without any judicial oversight, to help track down protesters and political opponents.

The company came under huge criticism and pressure following the report, and subsequently issued a statement saying that it was launching "an action programme for handling issues related to protection of privacy and freedom of expression in non-democratic countries."

I noticed yesterday Teliasonera published a post on its website covering a recent conference it participated in about internet governance, held in Azerbaijan. It's quite interesting to see, for a company that was accused of such serious complicity in the most grave of human rights abuses, how Teliasonera is now presenting itself:

For Teliasonera, of course, providing access to telecommunications including the internet is the business model. This business model includes freedom of expression, so that our subscribers can communicate, and protection of privacy, so that our users feel trust in our services. [...]

Human rights are an area which is constantly evolving, and any measures against individuals must be based on the rule of law. Companies need to abide by local legislation whilst respecting human rights.

These two aspects show, that telecoms and human rights at times are in conflict and require difficult tradeoffs, both democratic and economic terms. This means working out and establishing processes based on firm principles. The way forward is not easy, the challenges must be met jointly by the industry, and national as well as international organizations...

It's a positive sign that Teliasonera is recognising that telecommunications companies need to respect human rights, and that a company providing access to telecommunications must respect freedom of expression and protect privacy. But what I would like to hear more about is the action Teliasonera has taken to put these principles into practice. I would be interested to hear from citizens in countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan about whether or not there are still situations in which they find themselves called in for interrogations after saying things critical about the ruling government on a phone call or in an email or text message.

I can't imagine that Teliasonera has had much success trying to convince secret police in Azerbaijan, for instance, that they should start respecting privacy and stop using the "black boxes" to sift through emails and identify dissidents. Ultimately, if Teliasonera is still operating in these countries, then on some level it seems realistic to suggest that it will remain complicit in human rights violations — violations that will almost inevitably occur as a result of authoritarian governments abusing the power that they hold to spy on people.

At the internet governance conference I mentioned above, Neelie Kroes, the vice president of the European Commission, gave a stern speech in which she condemned Azerbaijan's human rights record: "In this very country, we see many arbitrary restrictions on the media," she said. "And we see activists spied on online, violating the privacy of journalists and their sources." What happened after Kroes speech was telling and indicative of the scale of the problem in a country like Azerbaijan: members of her team had their computers reportedly hacked. "I'm presuming it was some kind of surveillance," one said.

[To reiterate: I'd be keen to hear from any activists, journalists, telecom engineers, politicians, anyone in this region with more information about the current state of surveillance in the former Soviet Republics. Info on Teliasonera's continuing role would be especially welcome.]

UPDATE, 17.11.12: A kind gentleman has emailed me a link (.doc) to a very interesting full transcript of a meeting at the recent internet governance conference in Azerbaijan, which representatives from Teliasonera participated in.

Here are some notable snippets from speakers who identified themselves as representatives of Teliasonera or its subsidiary in Azerbaijan, Azercell (emphasis added): a telecom company we do not participate in the decisions on proportionality between national security and human rights. That's something which is done by legislator and authorities.


...the frequencies in this country [Azerbaijan] have been owned by the government, and we just lease them, so we just own the infrastructure, and the lease for those contracts are like for 20, 25 years, we lease the frequencies from the country, and then those -- and the government has the right to interfere in accordance with the different legislations, so whenever those defined cases are, they can take the information even without the notification to the company in accordance with the whole legislation so whatever Teliasonora operate in the local market they do operate in accordance with the legislation.

...because the frequencies have been owned by the government, we don't even have to have this [secret "black box"] room or whatsoever. Because it is the property of the government.

The Teliasonera representatives also said that the company is trying to improve transparency in relation to its human rights efforts by publishing information on its website, and is working to "improve processes when it comes to government demands" such as by "maybe seeking judicial review."

I had a quick scan through one of the key documents over at, which is supposed to be an overview of Teliasonera's "action programme" related to telecommunications and human rights. One of the most striking passages, in a document (.pdf) headed "Freedom of expression and privacy – the international framework," is as follows (emphasis added):

The requirements generally imposed on a telecoms operator that are sensitive from the point of view of rights and freedoms are those allowing the police and national security services to intercept and monitor telecommunications traffic in secret, or to gain access to information on subscribers and historical information on telecommunications traffic and on the location of mobile phones. There may also be requirements to shut down all or part of a telecommunications network, block individual messages and block specific websites on the Internet.

One aspect that national regulations have in common is that the telecoms operators do not participate in public authorities' decisions to take a particular action. Local laws sometimes require decisions to be made by a court or by an individual public authority. The choice of decision-making body may be influenced by the nature or severity of the threat and how time-critical the measures are. One recurring feature of national regulations is that details concerning public authorities' decisions, requirements and work in these areas are strictly confidential and telecoms operators are not given any information on why a particular measure is to be adopted.

What these snippets illustrate is the deeply conflicted position Teliasonera has put itself in by doing business in countries such as Azerbaijan. The company says that it is committed to protecting human rights, freedom of expression and privacy, and yet in the same breath admits that it must adhere to "local laws" in these authoritarian countries and in some cases has no say in decisions about "proportionality between national security and human rights." It is definitely a good sign that Teliasonera has at least recognised that it must do more to address these problems, as I mentioned above. But any telecom company that chooses to continue operating in countries where crackdowns on activists and journalists are rife at the present time is still on some level taking a decision to put financial considerations first, while implicitly turning a blind eye to ongoing human rights violations facilitated with communications surveillance.

The Rise of Public Relations and The Great Wall of Obfuscation

It's a well established fact that the growing public relations industry is having a profound impact on journalism today. Last month I was reading about how global PR revenues are amounting to $10bn a year, and in the United States it is estimated that the ratio of American PR professionals to journalists grew from 1.2-1 in 1980 to 4-1 in 2010.

What this means in reality is not only that journalists are ceaselessly bombarded by a near-constant flow of emailed press releases. It has also contributed towards something far more damaging to the profession. That is, how public relations representatives and press officers increasingly function as a barrier or buffer between the journalist and the information he (or she) wants to obtain. They often seem trained to engage in evasiveness, less interested in helping reporters reveal information than they are in protecting the reputation of the organisation which pays their salary.

I'll cite a few routine examples just to illustrate the sort of thing I'm talking about.

1. I have been chasing a well-known US technology company for more than two months about an important story I have been working on concerning surveillance, and so far I have been passed between two separate public relations teams. Both have evaded answering my direct questions and declined to put me in direct contact with the people at the company I need to speak to. Why? "It's complicated," I have been repeatedly told.

2. Government organisations are just as bad. Only last week I discovered that the European Commission, the EU's executive body, has a rule in place that bars its officials from talking directly to any journalists. Any contact, one official told me, has to be approved by the press office, which functions as a sort of overlord, sanctioning any comments before they are released.

3. While pursuing a story last year about Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of leaking US government documents to WikiLeaks, I contacted a police detective in Wales who I understood had some involvement in the Manning case. Manning is a joint UK-US citizen because his mother is Welsh and lives in Wales, and I wanted to find out more information about claims the Welsh force had assisted the FBI to search his mother's house. The detective refused point blank to speak with me when I called her on the phone; she sounded offended that I had even attempted to ask her a question directly and hung up on me seconds after I introduced myself. The press officer for the force swiftly emailed me a reprimand: "In future if you have a media query please observe the correct protocol and contact the press office and do not approach individual officers directly." I fired back: "Not every public body – police force, council, government office etc. – has a set in stone 'protocol' that must be blindly adhered to and never breached. May I remind you that it is not a against any law for a journalist to approach a police officer to ask for background comment."

The cold and arbitrary bureaucracy of it can be extremely frustrating. On some occasions, press officers can be helpful: assisting you by pointing out relevant information, or by arranging interviews with officials. But in other (most) cases there is no doubt that they function as corporate-style risk managers ready to erect a Great Wall of Obfuscation the moment they get a whiff of a controversial headline.

This also has a bearing on the UK's Freedom of Information Act, which is used to obtain information from public bodies. Specifically, take how London's Metropolitan Police has admitted handling Freedom of Information requests. FOI requests, according to the UK's Information Commissioner, are supposed to be "applicant and motive blind" because "it is about disclosure to the public, and public interests. It is not about specified individuals or private interests." The Met's policy, revealed during a government consultation on FOI law in February, contravenes the commissioner's principle because journalists' requests are treated differently and have to be pre-approved for release by the press office.

One thing I am glad to see is that the UK's Society of Editors appears to have recognised the impact all of this is having. On Monday in Belfast the Society hosted a discussion on the topic, described as follows:

Members of the public have a right to know, but journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to get answers to the simplest of questions on their behalf. A creeping control culture means that face-to-face contact, and even telephone calls being replaced by carefully managed email exchanges. De-humanised, sterile, and obstructive, this trend poses a serious threat to journalism and genuine transparency – at all levels.

It is definitley a threat – but I'm not sure how journalists collectively can respond. As the public relations industry grows, in stark contrast, journalism is struggling to survive. There are less and less publications out there able to invest in time-consuming, laborious investigative reporting, which is hugely detrimental to society and to the health of democracy.

One solution might be for the government to create a kind of investigative journalism fund to help reporters and media outlets finance important investigative projects. This has been supported by a House of Lords committee – but is probably unlikely to come to fruition at least in the near future due to the wider economic crisis. Yet it's not as if public funding for investigative reporting isn't financially viable, even in the grip of a recession. Recently, the government wasted an estimated £40 million on a botched rail contract. Yes, £40 million. Even a fraction of that amount could have funded valuable muckraking projects and helped to push back against the polluting culture of public relations.