Every day, Syrians are risking their lives to broadcast pictures and videos of the uprising -- but because of U.S. sanctions on Syria, they don't have access to essential technologies that would protect them from being spied on and tracked down by the Syrian government - often with the use of computer viruses. By easing current sanctions, the U.S. can help Syrian activists share information more safely.
Because of U.S. sanctions, Syrian people are denied access to tools important to their online safety and security, such as anti-virus software and automated security updates. Syrians can't make purchases in Apple's App Store for their Apple products and it isn’t even possible to target Syrians with online advertising and PSAs on platforms like Facebook. Widely used products like Java, Yahoo Messenger, and mobile app stores like Google Play, which host important tools such as the Guardian Project's popular anti-censorship tools, do not have essential automatic security updates.
Western governments and private corporations have publicly committed to helping Syrian activists, but the reality described by activists on the ground—and documented recently by the Washington Post —does not always match the rhetoric. Recent statements from the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) have made it clear that it is U.S. Government Policy that these tools should be available. Yet many vital platforms and tools remain inaccessible, because the sanctions are too complex and most companies fear harsh penalties of up to $1m per infractions.
As Syria undergoes unprecedented political upheaval, there is an opportunity for the Departments of Commerce and Treasury to review existing export controls, examining current language and licensure mechanisms, to address the concerns of private companies and reduce the barriers to licensing.
We ask that Commerce and Treasury consider:
• Granting a new general license to provide broader, clearer, and more explicit exemptions on personal communications and security technologies, balancing legitimate concerns over cryptography and financial transactions with the need to protect the safety of at risk populations.
• Streamlining the licensing process for both companies and non-governmental organizations, and offer clearer formal and informal guidance to companies on licensing procedures.
Please join me and other human rights advocates from Syria and across the world in calling on the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce to rise to the challenge.