Our views on telecommunications operators’ presence in authoritarian countries

In a debate article in today’s Sydsvenska dagbladet, we are presenting our views about the role of telecommunications operators in authoritarian countries which we feel deserves closer scrutiny.

TeliaSonera has established operations in several countries that lack a democratic tradition. This has been met with some criticism, but we feel it is important to be present and build mobile networks in these countries, writes Cecilia Edström, Senior Vice President and Head of Group Communications at TeliaSonera.

The debate about the role of telecommunications operators in authoritarian countries deserves closer scrutiny. One year after the Arab Spring, where mobile communications played a crucial role, there are still people who insist that TeliaSonera should leave non-democratic countries. However, we feel that this would not help those who struggle for the freedom of expression, a right that is threatened also in developed Western democracies.

TeliaSonera has decided to establish operations in several countries that lack a democratic tradition. It is too easy to just criticize. The fact that mobile technology can be used to monitor and intercept citizens is obviously a topical and important concern in many of the Central Asian markets in which TeliaSonera operates, but the suppression of the freedom of expression is a global threat. The definition of the freedom of expression is becoming blurred, as an increasing number of Western democracies take decisions that limit free Internet use.

We feel that it is important to be present and build mobile networks also in countries where it is likely that the opposition will be wiretapped in a way which would be unacceptable in Sweden. For the people who strive for democracy, it is better to be able to call, tweet, send images and surf the web even if an authoritarian government is able to use the technology to track and intercept citizens. The upsides outweigh the downsides.

For Google, it is relatively easy to make the decision to leave a market. They are able to place their servers outside the country borders and trust the telecommunications in the country to enable them to continue to offer their services. In that respect, telecoms operators that build mobile networks and create contacts to the outside world do more for the development of democracy.

Last year, the UN endorsed the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. According to the principles, states have an obligation to protect human rights. The role of business enterprises is to respect human rights. This is a very important principle. Companies, such as TeliaSonera, that provide telecommunications services in countries with authoritarian regimes can never replace a democratic and open government.

The UN has stressed the importance of building telecommunications infrastructure also in its Millennium Goals.  Therefore it is not an option for us to leave these markets, as long as there are no direct sanctions and we consider our operations to be ethically sound.  On the contrary, we feel that is important to offer means to communicate and access information from all around the world to as many people as possible. Change can only happen if we are present in the everyday life.

An issue that has been addressed less is the recent development where countries that are considered democracies call for more and more control of their citizens. Examples of such demands include data storage requirements, the FRA law, and the ability to intercept even people who are temporarily visiting Sweden. In certain countries, such as the United States, the government has the right to shut down Internet access, when there is a threat of terrorism. Non-democratic countries have adopted similar procedures.

The increased control of individuals jeopardizes free Internet use, freedom of expression and the protection of privacy.  We were therefore pleased to hear the EU recently declare that they will investigate the status of Internet freedom. This is also the reason why TeliaSonera has started an industry dialogue together with nine other international telecommunications companies (Alcatel-Lucent, Deutsche Telecom, France Telecom/Orange, Millicom, Nokia Siemens Networks, Tele2, Telefonica, Telenor and Vodafone Group) in order to find a common way to fight against the threat to the freedom of the Internet. In dictatorships as well as in democracies.

In many of the countries where we operate, there are naturally a number of challenges related to both corruption and human rights that we must face.  However, we are convinced that, with our services and with our values as our foundation, we can strengthen the forces that strive for sound business ethics, democracy and human rights.

Cecilia Edström
Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Cecilia Edström is Senior Vice President and Head of Group Communications at TeliaSonera. She is a Bachelor of Science in Finance and Business Administration and has previously held a similar position at Scania.