With Coursera lifting restrictions for users of its online educational courses in Syria, but upholding restrictions for users in the sanctioned countries of Cuba, Iran, and Sudan, the need for streamlined communication technology policies for countries sanctioned by the U.S. is more necessary than ever.
Cuba, Syria, Sudan, North Korea, and Iran are all currently under heavy U.S. sanctions, which have a negative impact on what communications technologies individuals in these countries can access and use. EFF believes that all individuals should have the right to access technologies that facilitate communications. And the U.S. government recognizes the need to modify outdated sanctions that restrict vital communications and educational technologies from citizens living in U.S.-sanctioned countries. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that the U.S. government’s piecemeal approach to updating these sanctions is largely reactionary and ultimately prioritizes certain countries over others for reasons that are, to put it charitably, hard to discern.
For example, Iran recently received some relief. According to an article published by the Open Technology Institute, “the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued a revised General License D for Iran, clarifying a number of outstanding questions about the original license authorizing the export of hardware, software, and services that enable personal communications. The new General License D-1 replaces the May 2013 General License D, which allows companies to offer laptops, cell phones, anti-virus software, secure chat, and other tools to Iran despite comprehensive U.S. sanctions.”
So good for Iran, but why only them? Unfortunately, attempts by the Treasury and State Departments to clarify and reissue licenses in order to ameliorate confusing or unclear wording for licenses belonging to one sanctioned country leave citizens of other countries rightfully wondering why they don't receive similar treatment. OFAC never provides the basis for these relaxations, adding to the sense of unfairness.
Furthermore, even as the U.S. revises some sanctions regimes in favor of free flow of information, the disjointed way this occurs leaves many U.S. companies on the defensive—since the rules change depending on the recipient country and the penalties are so severe, companies overblock or otherwise restrict access to their products and services in order to protect themselves from liability. So the relaxation of sanctions doesn't even help those who it is intended to help. As OTI points out: “The Treasury and State Departments have previously struggled to entice U.S. companies to take advantage of existing authorizations, despite four attempts to revise and expand them since 2009.”
To fix this, the U.S. should stop the piecemeal. Any modifications to sanctions should make it easier for American companies to confidently comply with them and these modifications should apply to all sanctioned countries. They are begging for it.
Sudanese activist and blogger Dalia Haj-Omar says that the Internet is "the only platform for free civic engagement in Sudan." Meanwhile, an article on AllAfrica.com states: "This is an appeal to empower Sudanese citizens through improved access to ICTs so that they can be more proactive on issues linked to democratic transformation, humanitarian assistance and technology education -- an appeal to make the sanctions smarter."
It’s not just Sudan. Dr. Mahmud Angrini, a Syrian doctor who claims to have taken more than 20 Coursera classes so far, wrote in an email recently to Global Voices: “It's a shame for [the U.S.] to share the Syrian regime in his collective punishment against the Syrian people. Education is an essential part of the humanitarian aid that my people deserve, and now after this decision, we lost one of the last resorts that some Syrians were depending on to continue their learning. Please, if you can, let my voice reaches those who deprived us even from our simplest rights.”
Similarly, a recent piece published on Medium describes the harm being caused to Iranians by technology sanctions.
The U.S. government needs to recognize that U.S. sanctions on communication technology, especially in the piecemeal way they are being handled, are currently causing more harm than good. They need to give clear, unequivocal green light to U.S. companies that are helping people to communicate online, regardless of where they happen to live.