Fighting against the sanctions regime for the right to information and innovation can sometimes feel like a cat and mouse game, but today, citizens of Sudan are like the cats that got the cream. After years of campaigning from Sudanese and international activists alike, a success: The Office of Foreign Assets Controls (OFAC) at the US Department of Treasury has issued a general license for the export of hardware and software “incident to personal communications” to Sudan.
The fight for a general license for Sudan has been an ongoing one. When, a little over one year ago, a general license was issued for Iran, Sudanese civil society asked “Why not us too?” and launched a new campaign. We criticized the piecemeal approach to sanctions relief, urging the OFAC “give a clear, unequivocal green light to US companies that are helping people to communicate online, regardless of where they happen to live.”
This time, the US government has taken notice. On its Facebook page, the US Embassy of Khartoum wrote:
This step comes after careful study and debate, including consultations with a wide range of Sudanese civil society organizations, in particular business groups such as the Sudanese Young Businessmen’s Association and the U.S.-Sudan Business Council, and representatives of the people of Sudan in the form of religious leaders and local leaders. They made it clear that the Sudanese people were suffering from a lack of free flow of information.
The recent decision of the Sudanese government to stifle the press by seizing the full print run of 15 different newspapers also made it clear that the people of Sudan need more freedom to access information.
What do the changes mean for the people of Sudan? As we wrote last June, the sanctions restrict the export of everything from massive open online courses (MOOCs) to mobile phones, harming innovation, access to information, and development. For a country like Sudan, where the number of Internet users has grown from around 400,000 to more than 8 million in less than a decade, the forthcoming influx of technology can mean a world of difference for average consumers.
Maha Elsanosi summed up the sentiment in a poetic tweet that read “Good news in #Sudan for a change. Goodbye VPN, you will be missed?” Though we hope VPNs remain in use for other reasons, Elsanosi was alluding to the fact that VPNs will no longer be needed for those who were using them to circumvent the effect of sanctions on online courses, libraries, and other sites.
We are thankful to OFAC for making these changes, and congratulate our friends in Sudan on the hard work that got them here. It is our hope that, going forward, any sanctions imposed anywhere will exclude by default communications technologies that aid in the quest for information and innovation.