On March 20, to coincide with the Iranian holiday of Nowruz, President Obama recorded a video message in which he offered assistance to the Iranian people in communicating beyond Iran's borders. Consistent with the Department of State's "Net Freedom" initiative, Obama issued new guidelines to make it easier for American businesses to provide software and services to Iranians in order to facilitate communications using free technologies (as opposed to paid ones). The new guidelines also include a "favorable licensing policy" through which U.S. individuals and companies can request approval from the Office of Foreign Assets Control for paid products like web hosting and services like Skype Credit and Google Talk. The guidelines, which are basically clarifications, are helpful, but they could have gone much further.
Justifying the new guidelines, a White House blog post outlined some of the ways in which the Iranian government has earned its titles as an "Internet enemy" (Reporters Without Borders) and one of the "top 10 online oppressors" (Committee to Protect Journalists), including:
- Monitoring and filtering online content
- Limiting access to the Internet
- Suspending access to the Internet
- Employing a "cyber army"
- Prosecuting citizens for political speech
- Spying in Internet cafes
- Tracking and targeting citizens using technology
Indeed, the Iranian government has earned its place amongst the world's Internet enemies. Notably, however, there is another country that employs all of the above tactics and was named to RSF and CPJ's most recent lists. Exports to that country are also limited by a department of the United States government, preventing access by ordinary citizens to the same tools President Obama claimed were vital for Iranians. The same country is also experiencing upheaval, just like Iran. That country is Syria.
While EFF commends the new guidelines as far as they go, we can't help but wonder why Syrians aren't provided the same consideration. Back in September, we called on the Obama administration to clarify the export controls inhibiting Iranians, Syrians, and others from accessing important communications tools. We specifically highlighted the restrictions on Syria under the Department of Commerce, noting that Syrians are often prevented from using individual hosting services as well as free tools like Google Earth (which proved important for Tunisian activists seeking to map their country's torture chambers).
Although a process exists through which U.S. companies can apply for licenses to export to Syria, Syrians tell us that certain important communications tools remain inaccessible. As we've previously noted, applying for a license is a fairly simple process that takes approximately 90 days. Companies may also request “interpretative guidance” as to whether or not they require a license from BIS, which takes only 30 days. EFF is happy to assist any companies that are interested in doing so (contact Legal Director Cindy Cohn at Cindy@EFF.org).
Nevertheless, a process that takes up to 120 days is too long when upwards of 50 Syrians are being killed by their government every day. We therefore call on the Obama administration to give the same consideration as they gave Iranians and urge the Department of Commerce offer a "favorable" and quick licensing procedure for American companies wishing to export communications tools to Syria.
And once that's done, it's time to get serious about getting the U.S. government out of the way of the Americans and American companies who want to help the movements for freedom around the world. As we said last fall, "it’s time for the U.S. to stop this piecemeal approach and affirmatively allow unlicensed distribution of communications tools and services to people in all countries of the world."