On Monday, President Obama, in a speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, announced new measures to help curb human rights violations by the Syrian and Iranian governments.  These measures include an executive order targeting people and companies facilitating human-rights abuses with technology, as well as a set of “challenge grants” that would fund companies to help create new technologies for the purpose of warning citizens in countries where mass killings may occur.

While we applaud these efforts—which, it should be noted, are targeted and narrow enough so as not to cause the type of collateral damage we’ve previously condemned—we do have concerns about just how much the executive order, which is focused solely on Iran and Syria, will accomplish.

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, which bar 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.

Ultimately, the executive order is a good thing and won’t—we hope—hurt Syrian or Iranian individuals, while having an impact on the companies and entities complicit in regime human rights abuses.  We’re happy to see the Obama administration taking note of—and acting on—the dangers at the intersection of technology and human rights, but hope to see other issues raised in this post addressed as well.