June 27, 2012 | By Jillian York

EFF Signs Joint Coalition Letter Urging Companies to be Proactive on Export Regulations

For quite some time, EFF has campaigned for changes to the export controls that prevent important communications technologies from reaching activists and dissidents.  These export controls—enacted by the Departments of Treasury and Commerce and detailed here—often hurt the very individuals they’re meant to help, by restricting access for citizens while doing little to stop authoritarian regimes from getting ahold of products via third parties or on the black market.

Unfortunately, the government has often been unclear in respect to what exactly is restricted for export, leading companies to exert the utmost caution, which can lead to overreaching restrictions.  Just last week, for example, reports emerged of Apple refusing to sell products to speakers of Farsi, citing “company policy”—no doubt an overbroad interpretation of regulations.

On the other hand, Google recently made available to Syrians several of its products: Earth, Chrome, and Picasa—three tools that had been unavailable for download in the country for years.  When asked, Google clarified for us that their ability to do so was based on a general license issued last August.  Google should be commended for their proactive efforts to ensure communications tools reach the Syrian people.

Given that Google did not require a special license to export those products, we believe that many other companies are in a position to reassess their policies and, if their products could be deemed “incident to the exchange of personal communications” online, take the necessary steps to authorize them for export. 

To that end, we have joined with other organizations—including the National Iranian-American Council, the Syrian American Council, and the Tor Project—in urging companies to take several proactive measures: 

  1. End the unnecessary blocking of services for the public of sanctioned countries;
  2. Apply for export licenses where incidental transactions create potential liability concerns;
  3. Disclose which services are restricted based on location or language, and the reasons for doing so;
  4. Engage with civil society to identify policies and regulations that create impediments to supporting users under political duress.

The letter, included below, is addressed to several companies, though it should be noted that the list is not exhaustive.  We hope that raising the profile of this issue with companies will ultimately result in more individuals gaining access to the tools they need.

Mr. Warren Adelman, Chief Executive Officer, Go Daddy Operating Company, LLC.
Mr. Joseph Alhadeff, Vice President for Global Public Policy, Oracle Corporation
Mr. Bob Boorstin, Director of Corporate and Policy Communication, Google Inc.
Mr. Tim Cook, Chief Executive Officer, Apple Inc.
Mr. Dave DeWalt, President and Chief Executive Officer, McAfee Inc.
Ms. Carol DiBattiste, Executive Vice President, General Counsel, Geeknet, Inc.
Mr. Jace Johnson, Vice President Government Affairs & Public Policy, Adobe Systems
Mr. Lanham Napier, President & Chief Executive Officer, Rackspace, US Inc.
Ms. Ebele Okobi. Director Business & Human Rights Program, Yahoo! Inc.
Mr. J.R. Smith, Chief Executive Officer, AVG Technologies
Ms. Louisa Terrell, Director of Public Policy, Facebook, Inc.

CC: Ms. Susan Morgan, Executive Director, Global Network Initiative 

Dear Sir or Madam,

While American and European companies provide unmatched platforms for free expression and citizen journalism, misapplications of export regulations have created a chilling effect on the free flow of information to those living under repressive regimes. We are writing to urge you to take necessary steps to ensure important Internet communication services provided by your companies are not unnecessarily blocked for individuals in sanctioned countries.

In places such as Iran, Cuba, Sudan and Syria, online media has emerged as a sanctuary to debate ideas, report human rights violations, and support women’s rights. Increasingly, these communities have faced the denial of essential services by your companies, stifling opportunities to affect social and political change, as activists struggle to restore the means they rely on to communicate freely and support their operations. 

As technology and business leaders, your companies bear the unique obligation to establish forward-thinking industry standards on responsible business policies, procedures and practices. While we understand there are fears about running afoul of the complex legal structure of sanctions regimes, civil society’s voice is stifled when access to the Internet is blocked without cause. We are confident that providing services to the public of embargoed countries can be accomplished without peripherally exposing good-faith actors to new liabilities or undue legal hurdles. Where constructive steps have been taken to expand product availability, such as Google Chrome in Syria, this progress has been met with wide public support, positive media attention and government encouragement.

While sanctions regulations limit direct economic transactions with embargoed entities, recent changes to Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) programs, such as the revisions made on March 8, 2010, provide exemptions for the export of ‘services and software incident to the exchange of personal communications over the Internet.’ On several occasions since, including the interpretive guidance and favorable licensing policy issued March 20, 2012, President Obama, Secretary Clinton and Congress have reiterated their political and material support for securing the Internet as a mechanism to promote human rights abroad.

In spite of these legal allowances, the publics of sanctioned countries continue to be denied access to the basic tools and platforms necessary for communicating safely and securely online. While civil society and governments foster the development of technology to protect Internet users, this continued restriction of access facilitates authoritarian governments in the repression of their citizens’ fundamental freedoms.

When users are unable to access content hosting, instant messaging, development tools, antivirus products, Java, Flash or document readers, they are either hindered in their ability to communicate on the Internet in the same way as their peers, or they turn to untrustworthy sources. Blanket restrictions imposed on advertising content and languages severely constrain the ability of external parties to sustain their operations and connect to isolated, at-risk populations. Denied these resources, users are forced to browse and participate on a limited and unsafe Internet, exposed to regime surveillance, censorship and hacking.

In the face of such pressing need, we call on you to:

  1. End the unnecessary blocking of services for the public of sanctioned countries;
  2. Apply for export licenses where incidental transactions create potential liability concerns;
  3. Disclose which services are restricted based on location or language, and the reasons for doing so;
  4. Engage with civil society to identify policies and regulations that create impediments to supporting users under political duress.

As civil society organizations and individuals concerned with technology access, media freedoms, human rights, and international development, we ask you to end unnecessary and counterproductive restrictions to sanctioned countries, to ensure that at-risk populations have equal access to a free and secure Internet conducive to facilitating social, political and economic growth.

      

Signed,

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Access

National Iranian American Council

Center for Rights/Fight for the Future

Council of the Americas

Cuba Study Group

International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran

New America Foundation's Open Internet Tools Project

New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute

Syrian American Council

The Tor Project

United4Iran

Witness

 

 


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