When sanctions make things worse

The Syrian government circumvents US export laws to download software for its surveillance project.

Google Earth screenshot
US regulations restrict the export of certain technologies to countries such as Iran, Cuba, Sudan and Syria [GALLO/GETTY]

Try to download Google Earth or Java from Syria and you’ll be greeted with an approximation of the following message: “In compliance with US export laws, this product is not available for download in your country.”

A combination of regulations, from the US Treasury and Commerce Departments, place restrictions on the export of certain technologies to a number of countries, including Iran, Cuba, Sudan and Syria. But while the rules guiding exports to some of the countries have been fine-tuned in recent years to allow their use and download by civilians of communications technologies, Syria remains under a set of strict Commerce Department regulations.

These regulations, in practice, prevent ordinary citizens from accessing a range of tools and services, including certain communication tools and web hosting. Syrian citizens cannot purchase Skype credits, for example, to call family members abroad. They cannot legally access Google Earth, a tool that Tunisian activists have claimed to be instrumental in their activism. Furthermore, they are prevented from participating in programs that could encourage innovation within the country, such as Google’s Summer of Code. 

The onus is placed on companies to apply for export licences, and as such, many choose to avoid the process, instead often enacting overbroad rules to guide internal decisions, for fear of violating the rules and being slapped with heavy fines. Nevertheless, the fault lies primarily with the administration of these export regimes which – when applied to online technology – are short-sighted and do more harm to citizens of a country than to its regime.

Though Syrian activists and bloggers have time and again raised their voices to protest the unjust application of export control laws on communications technology, they’ve been met with little success; however, recent developments involving the export of surveillance equipment by American (as well as Canadian and European) companies to the Syrian regime show the inconsistencies in enforcement of export rules, as well as their utter ineffectiveness.

A regime unaffected

While Syrian citizens are prevented from accessing basic tools, the Syrian regime has had little difficulty in circumventing export controls to gain access to powerful American-built tools to build up their surveillance of citizens. Last month, California company Blue Coat acknowledged that 13 of its appliances ended up in Syria where they are actively being used. While the Department of Commerce announced Friday that it was investigating whether Blue Coat had prior knowledge of the export, the company is just one of a handful that have made news lately for sales to Syria.

Italian company Area SpA – which partnered directly with the Syrian regime to build a system that would enable the regime to monitor Internet traffic – reportedly bought products from US companies Hewlett-Packard and NetApp from Italian resellers for use in the system. One Bloomberg report suggests NetApp employees may have been aware of the company’s role in Syria.

If the companies were unaware of the sale of their products to Syria, they may not be liable under export regulations. Perhaps they shouldn’t be when their products are sold through resellers, but the fact of the sale alone is enough to suggest that export regulations as they currently exist are ineffective at best, and directly contribute to power inequities at worst.

Impossible to enforce

In addition to the numerous examples of physical exports, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab released a report this past week detailing evidence that Syrian television station Addounia TV, as well as Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV, have websites hosted on US and Canadian servers. Both television stations are sanctioned by both Canada and the US, which suggests that the webhosts providing services may also be in violation of export regulations.

Given the frequency with which products are sold through foreign resellers, export rules applied to physical products may simply prove impossible to enforce. Similarly, though Syrians reach a blockpage when trying to download restricted tools like Google Chrome, with the use of proxies, even that restriction is easy to circumvent.

Ultimately, the ruthless Syrian regime has the power and connections to purchase whatever tools it desires in spite of export regulations while ordinary citizens, constrained by the regime’s crackdown, as well as low internet penetration, slowed bandwidth and broader sanctions, are inhibited by the same.

While Western companies must be held to a higher standard in respect to human rights, the export regulations as they currently exist only deepen the existing power divide in Syria, while doing little to stop the sale of technologies that can be used for human rights violations to countries such as Bahrain. 

The responsibility falls on corporations to know their customers, and on governments to ensure that their own regulations contribute to – rather than weaken – human rights.

Jillian C. York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.

Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.