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U.N. draft text on digital rights ducks call for spyware moratorium

GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N. member states are set to sidestep a call for a moratorium on commercial spyware, deciding instead to commission a study of how digital technology affects human rights, according to a draft U.N. human rights resolution seen by Reuters.

If adopted by the U.N. Human Rights Council at the end of next week, the resolution would set up a panel discussion at the Council’s session in June 2020, with a wide-ranging report completed a year later.

The text of the resolution submitted by Austria, Brazil, Denmark, Morocco, South Korea and Singapore did not mention a call by the Council’s expert on freedom of speech, David Kaye, for an immediate moratorium on the use and sale of surveillance tools and software.

His report last month said he had detailed testimony about governments using spyware developed and supported by private companies, and that surveillance of journalists and dissidents had been linked to arbitrary detention, torture and possibly extrajudicial killings.

The draft resolution made no mention of Kaye’s report, but said the “impacts, opportunities and challenges of rapid technological change... are not fully understood”, and called for further study.

Last week Kaye presented his report to the 47-member Council in Geneva, many of whose members defended their use of technology to monitor their citizens, while insisting that they only did so according to the law.

Chinese envoy Zhu Huilan accused Kaye of making “wanton remarks” about China in his report, and said it was international practice to use modern technology and big data to “enhance social order” and prevent crime.

Myanmar’s representative, Zen Sian Hung, said freedom of expression was the bedrock of democracy, but asked Kaye how countries could balance human rights and national security.

Javad Kazemi, an Iranian diplomat, said Iran controlled social networks to prevent terrorist activities, child abuse, drug smuggling, people trafficking and violations of privacy.

Kaye told the Council that it was their moment to act, to demonstrate in deeds the commitments they had repeatedly made in words. “Doing nothing... will undermine the credibility of all of our efforts to reinforce human rights and human rights standards around the world,” he said.

“The continued use of private surveillance technology, of commercial spyware, without safeguards is a continuing harm to individuals and the rule of law.”

Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Mark Heinrich