EFF has long contended that existing export controls—maintained by the Departments of Treasury and Commerce—hinder the ability of activists in countries like Syria to communicate. Restrictions on the use of hosting services, antivirus tools, and even circumvention technology make the already-unsafe Syrian Internet even less safe for users. Meanwhile, the Syrian government has repeatedly circumvented sanctions for the purpose of surveilling citizens. These controls are not only ineffective, they’re counterproductive.  

Last week, our position was affirmed by an article in the Washington Post that quoted Syrian activist Dlshad Othman as saying that U.S. sanctions have made it “much harder and more time-consuming to get anti-surveillance tools installed on activists’ phones and computers.” (Note the article also referenced our recent joint effort to push companies to be more proactive in obtaining licenses and pushing for reform.)

And just yesterday, a new petition—authored by Othman—went live on Change.org. The petition is addressed to, among others, Senator John Kerry—who, as recently as 2010, was pushing for engagement with Syrian President Assad—and asks for two concrete actions: A new general license to clarify exemptions for personal communications and security technologies, and a streamlined process for giving clear formal and informal guidance to companies.

These actions are a step in the right direction, and will do a great deal of good in the short term. A general license could clear up questions about the current exemptions. For example, despite the fact that the existing general license states that web hosting services for personal communications are exempt, numerous hosting providers still refuse service to Syrians out of fear of falling afoul of the Commerce Department. Likewise, a better process for guidance would be of great help to companies, several of whom have privately stated frustration with the current process.

In the long term, however, we hope that the Obama administration will affirmatively make clear throughout its various agencies that providing digital communications and information tools to citizens around the world, especially those under repressive governments, is not only legal, but encouraged.