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.
As Syria undergoes unprecedented political upheaval, those risking their lives deserve not to be left in the dark. Current export regulations mean that many of the software applications produced by US companies are inaccessible to Syrian citizens. We understand that these issues can go beyond the letter of the law, and that these restrictions are often self-imposed by US companies who don’t want to run afoul of Export Regulations.
Syrians cannot understand why the US, which has publicly stated its support for supporting online security for Syrians, and which funds major security tools, continues to maintain export regulations that deny Syrians easy access to many of the same tools.
Ordinary Syrians and activists are denied access to a variety of tools important to their online safety and security, such as anti-virus and Virtual Private Network (VPN) software, security updates to widely used products like Java and Adobe Flash, and mobile app stores like Google Play, which host important tools such as the Guardian Project's popular anti-censorship tools. Currently, it isn’t even possible to target Syrians with online advertising and PSAs about Internet security on platforms like Facebook.
Technology companies are the other side of the equation in this case. They are partly responsible for why many tools currently legal under the letter of current law, or whose legality could be quickly determined, have not been made available to Syrians. These companies should avail themselves of all guidance and legal options, including the resources that Commerce and Treasury have already made available. Easing current sanctions will send them a strong signal that concern for overzealous enforcement and fear of substantial penalties is not a good excuse for inaction.
We recognize that it is difficult to balance sanctions and licensure to ensure critical security tools reach dissidents, while still blocking the Syrian government’s access to tools for online censorship and surveillance, like Bluecoat. We also acknowledge recent efforts at the Departments of Treasury and Commerce to make this balance work better for Iranians, and we encourage you to review how a similar effort could benefit Syrians.
We request that you address Syrians’ concerns and review the current sanctions guidance, and that you examine whether the current language and licensure mechanisms should be changed to better address concerns of private companies and reduce barriers to licensing.
We specifically ask that you consider:
- Granting a new general license to provide broader, clearer, and more explicit exemptions for personal communications and security technologies, balancing legitimate concerns over cryptography and financial transactions with the need to protect the safety of at-risk populations.
- Provide a streamlined process for giving clearer formal and informal guidance to companies, and a faster case-by-case licensing mechanism for companies and non-governmental organizations.
In her December 2011 speech on Internet Freedom at the Hague, Secretary Clinton noted:
“The first challenge is for the private sector to embrace its role in protecting Internet freedom, because whether you like it or not, the choices that private companies make have an impact on how information flows or doesn’t flow on the Internet and mobile networks. They also have an impact on what governments can and can’t do, and they have an impact on people on the ground.”
As U.S. companies and non-governmental organizations seek to embrace this crucial role, the American government must act now to ensure that federal law is not the impediment to secure and open communications that can facilitate non-violent and democratic change in repressive environments.