In a speech at Washington DC’s Holocaust Memorial Museum this week, Barack Obama this week announced US measures against technology companies aiding the Syrian and Iranian regimes in tracking and monitoring of members of the opposition. Here’s the introduction from the Executive Order signed this week, worth quoting at length:
I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, hereby determine that the commission of serious human rights abuses against the people of Iran and Syria by their governments, facilitated by computer and network disruption, monitoring, and tracking by those governments, and abetted by entities in Iran and Syria that are complicit in their governments’ malign use of technology for those purposes, threaten the national security and foreign policy of the United States. The Governments of Iran and Syria are endeavoring to rapidly upgrade their technological ability to conduct such activities. Cognizant of the vital importance of providing technology that enables the Iranian and Syrian people to freely communicate with each other and the outside world, as well as the preservation, to the extent possible, of global telecommunications supply chains for essential products and services to enable the free flow of information, the measures in this order are designed primarily to address the need to prevent entities located in whole or in part in Iran and Syria from facilitating or committing serious human rights abuses.
It’s another indicator of the fact that the online element is now an essential part of any conflict. Since Hillary Clinton’s speech on the web in January 2010, the US has positioned itself as the defender of the free internet against the censorious, snooping impulses of Iran, China et al.
Our friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the United States have welcomed the White House move as ultimately “a good thing”, though with caveats. EFF say:
First, here’s what the order does accomplish:
It sanctions individuals and entities in Iran and Syria that are “complicit in their government’s malign use of technology” for the purposes of network disruption, monitoring, or tracking of individuals.
It aims to prevent entities (including companies) from facilitating or committing serious human rights abuses in Syria.
It bars the contribution or receipt of funds to any individual or entity named on the list contained within the order.
Notably, the order makes mention of companies that have “sold, leased or otherwise provided, directly or indirectly, goods, services or technology to Iran or Syria likely to be used to facilitate computer or network disruption, monitoring, or tracking that could assist in or enable serious human rights abuses by or on behalf of [the two countries’ governments]” (emphasis ours). This is notable because, when it was discovered that their products had made it to Syria and were being used by the regime to monitor network communications, executives of U.S. company BlueCoat denied knowledge of their products being in Syria.
Now, for what the order does not accomplish:
The order is solely focused on Syria and Iran, leaving out—most notably—Bahrain, where a protester was killed this weekend by police forces as well as, of course, other countries that engage in technology-related human rights violations. Bahraini human rights groups have documented the use of Trovicor technologies in surveillance there, leading to—in some cases—torture.
The order does not loosen existing restrictions by the Department of Commerce, whichbar the export of “good” technologies—including web hosting, Google Earth, and Java—to Syrians. At the Stockholm Internet Forum for Global Development last week, Syrian activist Mohammad Al Abdallah raised the Commerce restrictions as a consistent frustration amongst Syrian activists on the ground. While Treasury restrictions on Iran have been revised time and again, Commerce restrictions go unchanged.
Read the rest of Jillian C. York’s analysis here. Index very much supports EFF’s point on the lack of attention given to Bahrain.