Posted by Joshua on Thursday, March 18th, 2010
Why Doesn’t Washington Give Syrian Internet Users a Thumbs Up Too?
Laura Pitel, a reporter at The Times of London
Exclusive for Syria Comment
March 18, 2010
What’s going on at the US Treasury? Last week it announced that it would be easing sanctions that limit the export of online communication tools to Iran, Cuba and Sudan.
Great news, you might think. But to those who have been following recent developments in this field, the list was missing two big names: North Korea and Syria.
While the wider debate around the value of sanctions has been going on for decades, discussion about their relevance (and viability) in the field of information technology picked up pace earlier this year.
It had long been the case that, under legislation designed to punish hostile regimes, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) banned American companies from providing software and services to anyone in Iran, Syria, Cuba, Sudan and North Korea. This included operating systems, internet browsers and messaging services to embargoed countries’ citizens.
Google, Microsoft and Cisco were among the technology firms affected by the OFAC restrictions, which covered downloadable products such as Google Chrome and Google Earth. Web-based services, such as Gmail and Google, were still available in embargoed countries.
In January, Sourceforge, a website offering “open-source” software developed and shared by internet users across the world, reluctantly became the latest company to bar access to people living under the five blacklisted regimes after coming under increasing commercial pressure to comply with sanctions.The ban, which was rolled out from January 16, came just days before Hillary Clinton gave a high-profile speech on the importance to the US government of a global internet “where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” The timing of Sourceforge’s announcement was no coincidence. The contrast between Clinton’s words and the reality faced by tech companies was seized upon by angry citizens of the embargoed countries as a shining example of US hypocrisy. [See Syria Comment's article by Idaf on this.]
The irony of criminalising the supply of simple communication tools to Iranian and Syrian internet users, many of whom play an active role in agitating against the regimes being targeted, was not lost on experts in the field of sanctions law.
“If the sanctions were strictly interpreted we would do something that would make the Iranian government very happy,” Clif Burns, a lawyer at Bryan Cave, Washington, DC, and an Adjunct Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Centre, told me. “Providing communications for ordinary Iranians is an irritant to the Iranian government.”
And as Jillian York, project coordinator at the Berkman Centre for Internet Society at Harvard University, pointed out, restrictions on US companies seemed to contradict the Obama regime’s actions during the Iranian elections.”It seems hypocritical of the government to request Twitter to delay maintenance operations for Iranians on the one hand, then prevent those same Iranian dissidents from accessing certain software, including potential anonymity or circumvention tools,” she said.
So, in many ways, the announcement on March 8 that some of the barriers to US technology companies would be eased was unsurprising, given the recent rhetoric. From now on, they can freely offer “internet-based communication services – such as instant messaging, chat and email, and social networking.” Other types of communications software must be considered on a case-by-case basis.
But why, just weeks after Barack Obama nominated the first US ambassador to Damascus in five years, has Syria been left out?
In a story published the day before the Treasury’s official announcement, The New York Times claimed that existing sanctions did not bar the export of internet services to Syria and North Korea. This seems unlikely – all of the biggest technology companies in the United States have been denying products and services to Syrian and North Korean citizens for years.
It is possible that the government decided that benefits of relaxing the rules for Syria would not outweigh the costs? Did it weigh up the potential benefits of access to new, fast-growing markets to American technology companies and the potential fallout on the domestic front? Compared to Iran, Syria’s internet community is small, with a penetration rate of about 17 per cent of the population, as opposed to 32 per cent in Iran.
But the tactics of the Obama administration towards the two countries are also quite different. It is approaching Syria from the top end with the resumption of diplomatic relations and tentative top-level talks. In Iran, there is talk of increasingly aggressive sanctions against the regime, while quietly easing the rules stigmatising the country’s politically active Twitter-users and bloggers.
Seen in this light, the logic behind tightening Iran’s sanctions on the one hand and relaxing them on the other seems a lot less odd. Obama is trying to crack the whip at the top, where regime stakeholders will be hurt, while giving the thumbs-up to opponents of the regime at the grassroots to network and freely communicate.
The reality is that this latest OFAC announcement is little more than that: a message of encouragement. Compared to Ahmadinejad’s widespread programme of surveillance and censorship, a few restrictions on US technology exports are very small fry. As the aftermath of last summer’s disputed elections showed, knowing how to negotiate the online obstacles put in place by the regime is a standard weapon in the arsenal of many young, tech-savvy Iranians. Bypassing the US Treasury restrictions was well within their grasp.
Removing OFAC restriction sends a message from Washington to internet-users in Iran: we’re on your side. But removing them still sends a message to internet-users in Iran: we’re on your side. Syria’s community of online political activists may be tiny compared to Iran’s but they pay a high price for their actions. Do they not deserve a thumbs-up, too?
Given that all other US sanctions against Syria have proved futile, the current technology export rules can do little more than alienate a generation of young, outward-looking citizens that the Obama administration should be trying to impress. If Secretary Clinton truly believes in a world with no online borders, freedom of expression and equal access to information, she can lift these counterproductive barriers to freedom of speech.
Note: A few weeks after its initial announcement, Sourceforge lifted the blanket ban on users in embargoed countries. It has now delegated responsibility for deciding if a project contravenes export regulations to the individual project administrators instead.
* Syria Comment thanks Laura Pitel for this story.