guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 16 June 2010 17.06 BST
Iranian web users recently received some good news: following the media frenzy over last year’s elections, the US has chosen to relax export controls related to technology, giving users access to previously unavailable communications tools. The changes will affect not only Iran, but Sudan and Cuba as well, countries where free internet use has long been stifled by US restrictions.
In March the treasury department’s office of foreign assets control (OFAC) announced the amendments to current controls to “ensure that individuals in these countries can exercise their universal right to free speech and information to the greatest extent possible”. The amendments will allow those netizens to download software related to communications, such as instant messaging and chat clients, and tools related to social networking, and also permit the export of the same types of software to Iran and Sudan.
This news comes at a time when dialogue surrounding freedom of expression online is at a fever pitch in the United States. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton, in her celebrated January speech on internet freedom, stated that American companies need to take a principled stand against censorship, and that it should be part of the country’s “national brand”. In that vein, the amendments to the current export controls are a welcome gesture, both to American companies and to the netizens who benefit from their products.
Iran, of course, is an obvious target for these amendments, with nearly 30 million internet users and significant media attention in recent months. But what about Syria? Although there are no OFAC restrictions placed on Syria, the US department of commerce’s 2004 Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act prohibits the export of most goods containing more than 10% US-manufactured component parts to the country. The act also includes a provision on items deemed imports, including technology or source code controlled on the Commerce Control List, though licences are available for software providers through the bureau of industry and security.
Syrian netizens have long been aware of the effects of export controls on their lives. They are prevented from downloading popular software such as Java and Adobe Acrobat, and browsers such as Google’s Chrome. Microsoft products are available, but in pirated form, or smuggled in illegally. What is surprising to many, however, is when a new ban suddenly emerges; each year, a number of software providers seemingly crack down on Syrian users, often blocking access to entire websites for fear of non-compliance with the act.
For example, in early 2009, Syrian visitors to the professional networking site LinkedIn were surprised to be met with a blockpage. Though the full-on block was quickly removed, to this day users are barred from accessing the site’s proprietary software. Similarly, in January 2010, open-source code repository SourceForge began blocking the IP addresses of users in Iran, Sudan, Cuba, North Korea and Syria, much to the dismay of open-source enthusiasts. Though in the end, SourceForge removed the blanket block – placing responsibility on project managers to choose their level of restriction – the fact remains that a large swath of open-source projects are still off limits to users from restricted countries.
But in Syria, just as in Iran, the internet serves as an important communications and organising tool for dissidents and average users alike. And when you consider the fact that the Syrian government filters the internet internally as well (blocking sites such as Facebook and Blogspot, among many others), you realise that users are left with very little wiggle room.
If Hillary Clinton is serious about promoting internet freedom to all, she would be wise to consider the effects of the Syrian accountability act on the average Syrian netizen and what that means for the United States’ “brand” of internet freedom.
Fatimah’s Say: Its true that Syria should also be taken care of with regards to Internet freedom. Internet has become the more important form of learning these days. The Syrian government and American authorities should give high priority to Syria as well where Internet regulations have become so rigid it is bond to aggravate the public. I believe that if Syrians are given more freedom, they would be able to educate themselves more on the world surrounding theirs. They will be able to connect to others, share with others and learn new things. The economy of the country would see a grow with more people educating themselves.