Nokia Siemens Networks respond to Iran human rights abuses claims

Nokia Siemens Networks respond to Iran human rights abuses claims

Summary: Nokia Siemens Networks respond to the law suit filed against them for human rights abuses. They argue that although their technology includes lawful intercept capability, mobile communications on the whole has done more to empower activists fighting for democracy than its has for oppressive regimes seeking to oppose it.


Yesterday I posted on the lawsuit filed by Iranian journalist and activist, Isa Saharkhiz (pictured) and his son Mehdi in US Federal Court against, Nokia Siemens Networks, Siemens and Nokia for human rights abuses. Today Nokia Siemens Networks issued a statement in response to the law suit filing which I have quoted below in its entirety:

We have no quarrel with Isa Saharkhiz and his son; indeed Nokia Siemens Networks condemns human rights violations around the world. But the Saharkhiz lawsuit is brought in the wrong place, against the wrong party, and on the wrong premise.

The Saharkhizes allege brutal treatment by the Government in Iran, but they have not sued that government. Instead, they are seeking to blame Nokia Siemens Networks for the acts of the Iranian authorities by filing a lawsuit in the U.S., a country that has absolutely no connection to the issues they are raising.

Mobile communications are a powerful tool in the promotion of human rights and the rule of law. They have done far more to empower those who fight for democracy than to empower oppressive governments. It is true that all modern mobile communications networks include a lawful interception capability; this capability became a standard feature at the insistence of the United States and European nations. These countries needed the capability for law enforcement reasons that are common throughout the world. It is unrealistic to demand, as the Saharkhiz lawsuit does, that wireless communications systems based on global technology standards be sold without that capability.

This case is sure to flesh out very important principles of corporate responsibility for vendors and whatever happens here will be watched very closely indeed by the entire industry. But can or should a vendor have any influence over how the product is used after sale? Chip Pitts, who lectures at Stanford Law School and Oxford University, is an expert on the subject of business and human rights. He also just happens to be the former Chief Legal Officer at Nokia Inc. where he drafted the code of conduct used by Nokia and Nokia Siemens Networks. In an email Chip offered this opinion on the case:

Nokia Siemens Networks must be very careful here: it certainly is not the case as a legal matter that companies can take refuge in outdated arguments that they have no responsibilities for foreseeable harms caused by their products and services, or that they have no duties of care, due diligence, and avoidance of both direct infringement of human rights as well as indirect complicity in such infringement, when providing those products and services to regimes that may use them for human rights violations.  On the contrary, the substantive law of corporate responsibility is increasingly clear worldwide that corporations, their directors, and their officers must adhere to global human rights norms or face legal as well as social accountability through the burgeoning variety of enforcement mechanisms proliferating globally.  The fact that communications products and services also serve socially beneficial applications is true -- but irrelevant to these global realities.

The lawsuit filed is worth reading though I must warn you the details of Isa's arrest and torture do not make for easy reading. The case argues that Nokia Siemens Networks provided communications intercept technology with foresight of how the Iranian authorities might use it to violate human rights:

Defendants knowingly, negligently and willfully provided the infamous, abusive and oppressive Iranian government with sophisticated devices for monitoring, eavesdropping, filtering, and tracking mobile phones. The devices enabled Iranian officials to access private voice conversation, text messages, user phone numbers, and other identifying information about the Plaintiffs as well as the nature and content of their use of electronic communications. This information was produced only through the use of Defendants' provided equipment. The Defendants' sale to and training of Iranian government officials knowingly and willfully aided and abetted the commission of arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention, torture, and other major human rights abuses violating United States and international laws, causing Plaintiffs' severe physical and mental suffering.

The filed documents contend that there are three forms of telecommunications intercept practiced in Iran. The first involves the police getting a warrant first from a judge, then the Ministry of ICT executes the intercept with judicial supervision throughout the process. The second involves various security agencies ordering an intercept with the ICT Ministry directly without warrant. The third involves the Ministry of Intelligence and National security taking direct control at monitoring sites and performing their own intercepts and content filtering independent of the Ministry of ICT. The plaintiffs claim that the latter two methods violate Iranian and international law.

In addition to damages, the Saharkhiz's are seeking an injunction to stop Nokia Siemens Networks from providing further support or assistance to Iran or any other such regime where human rights are threatened and that the firm should assist in appeals to the Iranian government for release of Isa Saharkhiz.

In speaking with the Saharkhiz's lawyer Ali Herischi we discussed the question of lawful intercept as a standard feature used in telecommunications installations everywhere. He used the analogy of a gun  - he argues that lawful intercept technology is quite safe in the hands of the responsible yet potentially deadly in the hands of tyrannical regimes.

While Nokia Siemens Networks have come under fire for their business dealings in Iran, in contrast, Google, Facebook and Twitter have come in for commendation. Google's secure HTTPS email service provided safe communications for Iranian dissidents while Facebook rushed to introduced its Farsi service. Twitter famously delayed its engineering works to reduce risk of service interruptions in the critical days after the elections.

We also learned more about Isa Saharkhiz today. He is 57 years old and an award winning journalist who served as the New York bureau chief for the Islamic Republic News Agency for five years before returning home to become one of the chief activist architects of the 'Tehran Spring' - a period which marked a brief period of press liberalization. After last year's election he wrote an article describing Ahmadinejad's victory as a 'coup d'etat' before going into hiding in Northern Iran where he was tracked down by security forces, its is believed, as a result of mobile telephone intercepts and monitoring. According to his Wikipedia page, shortly before his arrest he told a Der Spiegel journalist:

I am on the run and change homes all the time. I turn on my mobile phone only one hour each day, because they can trace me and arrest me.

After his arrest he was beaten badly and suffered broken ribs and wrists before being taken to the notorious Evin prison in Tehran where he has been held for the past 15 months. The legal papers filed this week claim that he is unable to sleep and breathe at the same time due to untreated rib cage injuries. His health is said to be deteriorating rapidly and yesterday, writing on his blog, his son Mehdi declared his father to be in critical condition. If Isa is found guilty of his various charges in Iran he could face penalties ranging from four years in prison to the death penalty. Amnesty International are actively campaigning on his behalf.

This is sure to be a landmark case and Saharkhiz a cause celebre for some time to come.

Topics: Legal, Emerging Tech, Google, Nokia, Social Enterprise

James Farrar

About James Farrar

James has more than 15 years of experience working on corporate sustainability issues from both the corporate and NGO campaigning perspective.

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  • RE: Nokia Siemens Networks respond to Iran human rights abuses claims

    Since June 2009, when I learned Nokia-Siemens equipment had been responsible for the rounding up, beating and murder of Iran election protesters, I made up my mind never to buy Nokia phones again.
    • RE: Nokia Siemens Networks respond to Iran human rights abuses claims

      Not to defend both companies, but Nokia and Nokia-Siemens are different companies. One sells phones and the other sells telecom infrastructure.
  • Comparing the intercept tools to a gun is right

    Both are tools of oppression and aggression. Modern countries all have laws about selling dangerous technology to outlaws. Part of the problem is bigger than Nokia Siemens: their host countries do not consider Iran to be "outlaw enough" to ban such sales. But it doesn't excuse any company from whoring itself to dictators or terrorists in the name of profits. And their claim of "helping" by providing cell service to the masses is like a slaughterhouse claiming to help cattle "lose weight".

    I'm with nomoredespots, no more Nokia or Siemens for me. I sent a copy of this to our CIO and CEO because they are both socially conscious people, and my company does business with other divisions of Siemens.
    terry flores
  • Selective monitoring capability was not the only problem

    There were reports that Nokia/Siemens had also provided at least three monitoring centers to the Iranian government, each capable of automatically monitoring half a million randomly-selected simultaneous conversations and looking for certain predefined words/phrases.

    Although in case of Mr Saharkhiz it was selective monitoring that lead to his capture, because he was already a known dissident, thousands of other Iranian protesters were identified using those monitoring centers. I don't believe this kind of mass monitoring capability is a "requirement" by any western government.
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