One of the frustrating things about advocacy for human rights is that
often the most grievous offenders are the least susceptible to pressure
from public opinion. Some such as China appear to be simply too
powerful, while others such as Myanmar and north Korea are so
isolated from the rest of the world as to be rather immune from
However, in an increasingly globalised world where communications
technology plays such an important role perhaps placing pressure on
the big telecommunications companies may be one avenue to exert
some pressure. For example, the concessions made to China’s
government by big internet providers in order to secure access to
China’s huge market is one area where public opinion may have
In recent weeks the situation in Iran has attracted enormous interest,
but it is hard to see where we can exert much pressure. A key
element in the protest movement there has been the use of mobile
phones and the internet. However, charges are being made that the
multinational Nokia, the biggest mobile phone provider in Iran, has
provided the hardware which has allowed authorities to monitor calls
and so assist in the crack-down on consent.
I am not sure of the extent to which Nokia can be help culpable for
the use the Iranian government has made of its technology. Certainly
there is a significant boycott occurring within Iran (see following
news report). At this stage I would not argue for a boycott, but it may
be good to send a message to Nokia about our concerns about the
misuse of their technology. From a human rights perspective it would
be significant if large companies received a message that there must
be ethical safeguards in providing technology to oppressive regimes.
July 15, 2009
Nokia Faces Wrath Of Iran's Protesters
by Golnaz Esfandiari
Ehsan doesn't personally own a Nokia, and over the past few weeks the 26-year-old
Tehran resident has actively tried to ensure that friends and family -- or anyone else
who will listen -- don't buy the mobile-phone giant's products either.
Ehsan says that he would be proud if his efforts have harmed Nokia, which he accuses
of aiding the Iranian government in its "crackdown against freedom" following the
country's controversial presidential election on June 12.
According to the moderate Iranian daily "Etemad Melli," many Iranians who
sympathize with the protests are boycotting Nokia for providing the Iranian
government with the capability to tap mobile telephones, scramble the SMS text
messages used by many protesters to communicate, and interrupt calls.
The paper, which belongs to reformist presidential candidate Mehdi Karrubi,
headlined its story by saying Nokia sales in Iran have been halved as a result of the
boycott, although no figures were provided to support the claim. The report quoted
phone sellers as saying that the price of Nokia cell phones has fallen in Iran, and that
many people are exchanging their Nokia phones for other brands.
Tehran-based journalist Hadi Nili says it's very difficult to obtain reliable figures to
gauge the success of the boycott.
"I spoke to cell-phone sellers, who were unable to confirm it," Nili says. "Some said
that, in general, the sale of SIM cards and cell phones has diminished because of
network problems, but it's really not possible to confirm that people are buying fewer
Nokia cell phones."
In a market where the sale of mobile phones has boomed in recent years, Nili believes
that Nokia remains the first choice for many Iranians despite the boycott.
The Iranian economic daily "Donyay-e Eqtesad" reported on July 13 that one high-
end Nokia phone, the Xpress music 5800, is currently the top seller in the Iranian
One 37-year-old woman in Tehran who owns a Nokia phone says she hadn't heard
about the boycott campaign. She expresses concern that the government could
possibly tap her phone, but adds that she does not plan to join the boycott because she
can't afford to buy a new phone.
The Nokia boycott campaign was launched following reports that Nokia Siemens
Networks, a Nokia subsidiary that specializes in communications services and
networks, provided the Iranian government with a monitoring center.
"The Wall Street Journal" reported on June 22 that the monitoring capability was
provided in 2008 as part of a deal under which Nokia Siemens Networks provided
Iran with mobile-phone networking technology.
Ben Roome, a spokesman for Nokia Siemens Networks, told RFE/RL that the
company provides traditional circuit-switch telecoms equipment to Iran, and that all
networks can potentially be monitored.
"When we sell any network, anywhere in the world, we sell it knowing that whoever
runs that network has the ability, potentially, to listen in to phone calls running across
that network," Roome said. In the case of Iran, the technology may have given the
government the ability to listen in on individual phone conversations, and to track
down opposition members and critics. The Iranian establishment is believed to have
used the system during the current crackdown, and even before.
Several former detainees have told RFE/RL that during interrogation sessions they
were asked about past text messages and calls.
A blog titled "Boycott Nokia For Iran Crackdown" has changed Nokia's motto from
"connecting people" to "jailing people." It states that Nokia has a responsibility to
ensure that its technology is used in an ethical manner. On Facebook, an image is
circulating showing a Nokia cell phone with ears, above text that reads: "Nobody is
Nokia Siemens Networks spokesman Roome said the company carefully considers
where it does business:
"We rely very heavily, as all international companies do, on international decision
makers -- the governments in the countries in which we're headquartered, such as
Finland and Germany; the European Union, World Trade Organization; and UN
regulations -- about where we can do business," Roome said.
"So, for example we don't sell telecommunication networks to countries like North
Korea or to Burma, and also we know very little and saw very little information
coming out of those countries."
The announcement of a landslide victory by incumbent President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad in the June 12 election led to an outpouring of popular anger, leading
the Iranian government to quickly ban all foreign media from covering the protests.
In the void of information, mobile phones played a major role in the ability of Iranian
citizens to inform their fellow citizens and the outside world about the postelection
protests and the brutal government response.
Iranians protesters and witnesses used their phones to film demonstrations and
document beatings and shootings by the police and Basij militia forces.
The most tragic video clip recorded the death of a young Iranian woman named Neda,
whose final moments were captured by a mobile phone after she was shot in the chest
by a sniper. The video was quickly posted on electronic media and social networks
such as YouTube and Facebook, instantly making Neda the symbol of the "green"
Ironically, many of the videos coming out of Iran -- some showing protests and
citizens on rooftops chanting "Allah Akbar" and "Death to the dictator" under the
protection of night -- are likely being filmed on Nokia cell phones.
One activist in Iran who did not want to be named says people should keep using their
mobile phones to send out information about the events inside the country, while at
the same time pressuring Nokia to cancel its contract with Iran.
Some, including Ehsan, say they have also stopped sending text messages from their
phones altogether. Since the country's mobile network is run by the government, the
reasoning goes, they hope to deny what they consider an illegal government a
potential financial resource.
Sometimes the effort falls short.
Tehran-based journalist Nili says that in recent weeks he has received SMS text
messages from friends advising him to stop using SMS's.
Write a letter or email Nokia’s head office or its local
regional headquarters registering your concern about the
situation in Iran.
Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, Nokia President and CEO
P.O. Box 226,
FI-00045 Nokia Group Finland
Tel. +358 (0) 7180 08000
Anna Svensson Director,Communications Europe
Tel +46 8 4100 8505
Ai Fong Wong Director, South East Asia Pacific & Japan/Korea Communications
Tel +65 6723 2354
438B Alexandra Road #07-00
North American operations
Laurie Armstrong Director of Communications
Tel. +1 914 368 0423
102 Corporate Park Drive
White Plains, NY 10604
As a member of the Benenson Society, I write to express my concern at
reports that Nokia has been complicit in the Iranian regime violating the
privacy of citizens and jail hundreds of peaceful protestors. Nokia
recently provided the Iranian regime with an advanced digital
"monitoring centre" that is enabling authorities to intercept private
communications and arrest hundreds.
I respectfully urge Nokia to review its arrangements with Iran to ensure
that its services are not being used to violate human rights. Moreover, I
urge your company to address the issue of ethical responsibilities of
companies in the telecommunications industry in dealing with states that
practice repressive censorship.