June 26, 2014 | By Kimberly Carlson and Jillian York

Sudan Tech Sanctions Harm Innovation and Development: US Government and Corporations Must Act

It’s no secret that EFF is strongly opposed to the United States’ piecemeal approach to updating sanction provisions for the five U.S.-embargoed countries of Sudan, Syria, Cuba, North Korea, and Iran.  We’ve noted that the fundamental problem with the United States’ reform method is that it’s “largely reactionary and ultimately prioritizes certain countries over others for reasons that are, to put it charitably, hard to discern.” For example, according to an article published by the Open Technology Institute, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued Iran a new General License D-1—which replaces the old General License D—making it acceptable for U.S. companies to offer technology tools to Iran such as laptops and anti-virus software.  Similar allowances have been made for Syria. Despite years of advocacy, Syrians did not enjoy greater access to technology until after civil war broke out in the country. Recognizing the need for communications technologies, the Department of Treasury issued a general license (§ 542.511) allowing for the access of “instant messaging, chat and email, social networking, sharing of photos and movies, web browsing, and blogging ... provided that such services are publicly available at no cost to the user.”

Sudanese citizens have not enjoyed the same provisions.  In fact, U.S. sanctions in Sudan actually “inadvertently aid the regime by blocking access to critical personal communications tools.”  The simplest explanation for why sanction reforms have not yet occurred in Sudan seem to be a simple lack of political attention. In Iran,  a greater capacity and market demand for technology led to a reconsideration of sanctions, while in Syria, the civil war triggered an advocacy effort to ensure access on the ground to key communications technologies.  Unfortunately in Sudan—where 21 percent of the country’s 37 million citizens are online—people remain cut off from many important technologies, from medical resource sites to massive open online courses (MOOCs) and the Google Play store.

As we’ve written before, sanctions are only part of the problem.  Since OFAC restrictions limit access to goods, technologies, and services from the U.S. or by a U.S.-person, corporate lawyers are often overly cautious, resulting in overbroad restrictions on access.  For example, in 2009 Linkedin, in an effort to protect itself from liability, made the decision to delete the accounts of users in Syria, a decision that also affected usability in Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Sudan. It wasn’t until after the company was called out for being overly cautious that they reinstated service to Syrian users, admitting overcompliance with export controls restrictions.  SourceForge took similar action in 2010, and Apple and Airbnb have both been called out for restrictions placed on Iranians.

Demand for many of the banned technologies and websites are high. Dalia Haj Omar, a Sudanese activist and blogger, told us via e-mail that MOOCs and other online educational programs are “in great demand, especially from a younger population that is turning to online education,” in part because of a 1989 decision by the government to Arabize school curricula.  “Many youth realize they can't compete regionally or nationally if they don't have better education,” says Haj Omar. “Some universities are also turning to MOOCs to supplement their curriculums, since access to hard copy books is hard and expensive.”

Sudanese activists are calling for a general license similar to those issued for Iran and Syria.  Such a measure would provide residents of the country with much-desired access to sites like Mathworks.com, which provides engineers and scientists with software to discover, research, and innovate; anti-virus software updates from companies like Norton and AVG; and developer sites like SourceForge.

In the meantime, companies can help ease the pain of deprivation by applying for individual licenses.  A company that wishes to export to Sudan can file an online application with OFAC for a license.  Alternatively, companies may also request “interpretative guidance” as to whether or not they require a license.

Is your company looking to apply for a license? EFF wants to help!

We challenge those companies who are concerned about these restrictions to take the simple steps necessary to apply for a license.  In fact, this is so important to us that EFF is willing to help companies that want to take these steps but don’t have the resources to do so. Please contact EFF's Legal Director, Cindy@eff.org, if you'd like our help.

In limiting access to these sites, the Department of Treasury is unjustly preventing Sudanese from accessing information and technologies that are necessary for the advancement, innovation, and democracy of the country.  And the fact that users in other U.S.-sanctioned countries sometimes have access to these technologies, while Sudan is left on the sidelines to watch, is just a slap in the face.


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