The whole point of U.S. sanctions is to put pressure on uncooperative, repressive regimes – not inadvertently help them. But in Iran, Sudan, Syria, and other sanctioned countries, American restrictions may actually be aiding human rights abusing governments in their desire to control information online. What does the negative impact look like on the ground? And what does a better strategy look like? We posed those questions to regional experts and tech policy wonks. Their edited answers are below.
Why are current U.S. sanctions so problematic?
Jochai Ben-Avie, Policy Director at Access : As the struggle for human rights increasingly moves online, access to personal communications technologies is proving critical to the realization of fundamental freedoms. But users in Syria, Cuba, Sudan, North Korea, and up until recently, Iran, have had to surmount not only their own government’s restrictive policies, but U.S. sanctions too. Earlier this year, the U.S. Government issued General License D, which made basic technologies such as cell phones, anti-virus software, app stores, web hosting, virtual private networks (VPNs), and other services and products available to Iranian users. Yet, these technologies continue to be denied to users in other sanctioned countries, even as they prove ever more instrumental to human rights defenders, political activists, citizen journalists, and ordinary users.
David Sullivan, Policy and Communications Director at the Global Network Initiative: The consequences of that denial are most acute for democracy activists and human rights defenders, who are unable to access tools to circumvent blocking and filtering systems, and anti-virus software and security updates that could help protect them from state surveillance.
So how do U.S. sanctions impact the life of ordinary citizens on the ground?
Dlshad Othman, Syrian information security specialist: Every day, Syrians are risking their lives uploading images and news from [the ongoing conflict in Syria] to allow the world to understand better the situation. At the same time, because of the U.S sanctions on Syria, access to essential communication technologies is impossible. Syrians are not allowed to use web hosting services or any online money transactions, and most of their websites are hosted on cheap and unsecured web hosting. Anti-virus software cannot be purchased! How we can protect ourselves?
[While ordinary citizens struggle to protect themselves,] the Syrian Electronic Army, the regime’s hacker arm, engages in online activity that helps the government arrest more people and put them in jail. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime is benefiting from U.S technology like Blue Coat’s [surveillance equipment] to monitor citizens and crack down on access to information [even though there are sanctions prohibiting these exports].
Dalia Haj Omar, Sudanese human rights activist and GIRIFNA member: In Sudan, the sanctions limit access to things like anti-virus suites, e-document readers, and rich content multimedia applications. And most Sudanese citizens are not tech savvy enough to use circumvention tools like TOR. The inability to download software security updates makes many users in Sudan vulnerable to malware and has encouraged a black market for pirated software and operating systems.
Sanctions also limit access to knowledge. In Sudan you can’t order books or e-books on Amazon (or online generally); you can’t register for US examinations from inside Sudan (professional or academic); you can’t even access free things online such as the Khan Academy online courses and Google Scholar. The U.S. did drop educational and cultural sanctions in early 2013—so one wonders why these things are still blocked. This cultural and educational isolation of a new generation of Sudanese youth who are yearning to learn and to open up to the world has grave implications for the future of democratization in Sudan. Getting Sudan out of this darkness means that a new generation has to have access to knowledge so it realizes what it endures under the [National Congress Party of Sudan] is not okay. This government has capitalized on the ignorance of its citizens for far too long. The sanctions are only making that more possible.
What about the tech companies?
David: Despite recent developments, tech companies continue to be in a difficult spot when it comes to sanctions. They must navigate a dense thicket of sanctions regimes that differ by country and product. The risks of being found in violation are significant: civil penalties enforced by the Treasury Department add up to hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars per year. And the commercial benefits of seeking access to sanctioned markets remain modest, although this may be beginning to change as Internet penetration rates in Iran, Cuba, Syria, and Sudan continue to climb.
Beyond new licenses issued by the government, what else needs to be done?
Jochai: The onus is not only on the US Government to make technologies available in sanctioned countries, but also the companies. Last year, Access [my NGO]—along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, National Iranian American Council, United4Iran, the Council of the Americas, and other organizations—wrote to Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Apple, McAfee, Go Daddy, and other tech companies urging them to more broadly interpret US sanctions policy and to apply for specific export licenses where they were required. General License D explicitly cleared the road for U.S. companies to export their products and services to Iran. And already, companies like Google and Apple have opened up their app stores to Iranian users. Yet, much work remains to make personal communications technologies available to all users in sanctioned countries. Having a similar U.S. policy towards the export of personal communications technologies across sanctioned regimes would ensure greater legal clarity for companies and can increase the availability of technologies that are critical to the free flow of information and the realization of human rights.
Aliakbar Mousavi, Former MP, deputy of ICT Committee in 6th parliament of Iran; current Ph.D. student in ICT Management and human rights advocate: I would urge the administration to make the General License D more sufficient by issuing a clarification [or] executive order to facilitate transactions for exporting [paid products] and services to Iran. Also, the U.S. Department of State should ask U.S. tech companies like Yahoo! to implement the General License D by adding Iran and sanctioned countries like Sudan, North Korea, Cuba, Syria to its list for creating email accounts. Yahoo! could also enhance the security of its dangerous Messenger [by using more secure] SSL services.
For more on this topic, see a new report from the Open Technology Institute, “Translating Norms to the Digital Age: Technology and the Free Flow of Information Under U.S. Sanctions.”