San Francisco, CA – When Sahar Sabet, a US citizen of Iranian descent, entered an Apple store in Georgia to buy herself an iPad, she surely didn’t expect to be turned away for her ethnicity. After a sales associate overheard the 19-year-old speaking Persian on her cellphone, she was turned away and told that she couldn’t make her purchase because Iran and the US “have bad relations”. Though much ire has been since directed at Apple – and perhaps rightly so, given the company’s lack of public apology – the real problem is inherent in the way the US government administers sanctions.
The primary purpose of government sanctions is to weaken an opponent and force regime change. And yet, broad-based sanctions all too often cause harm and deprivation to ordinary citizens while doing little or nothing to affect their government. While the recent Apple debacle appears to be unprecedented, internet users in sanctioned countries have long complained about the effects of export controls, the result of which is often the wholesale blocking of communications technologies and bans from web hosting, among other things. Meanwhile, governments like that of Syria seem to have no trouble getting hold of US-built surveillance equipment.
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Though the effectiveness of sanctions could be endlessly debated, the Apple incident highlights something rotten to the core: the fact that poorly paid retail workers are charged with the high-risk and sensitive task of enforcing governmental export policies. Export regulations imposed by the US Departments of Commerce and Treasury apply to sales to foreign nationals in the United States – and non-compliance carries criminal penalties of up to $1m in fines or 20 years in prison. It’s little surprise that an Apple employee would err on the side of extreme caution.
The restrictions are tricky, but a close read makes clear that any retailer caught selling to an Iranian – even in the United States – could be held liable if that person brings their purchase with them to Iran. These restrictions contain exemptions for Iranians who are also US citizens or permanent residents, but nonetheless leave it up to retailers such as Apple to make such determinations.
Angry at the incidents, Iranian-Americans have protested outside of Apple stores, but their demand – that Apple “think different” – may be aimed at the wrong target. While it’s clear that Apple has handled the incident poorly, the real problem isn’t the company, but the export restrictions and how they’re enforced.
Over the past four years, the US Department of State has poured millions into exporting internet freedom in the form of circumvention technologies, trainings and other aid. And yet, while Iran remains the target of many of these tools, the US government continues to ensure that other communications tools remain commercially unavailable there. While sanctions have some utility in weakening a government (assuming that’s an acceptable goal), the inclusion of personal technology in such regulations seems counter-productive – at best – to that same goal. After all, wasn’t it smartphones and laptops that allegedly powered the 2009 Green Movement protests? Those same technologies are technically banned from Iran if they contain ten per cent or more US-produced materials (which nearly all do).
Sanctions on technology do not merely prevent access to laptops, they also inhibit progress. Google’s popular Summer of Code programme – which offers students stipends to write code for various open source software projects, providing them with valuable experience – is off-limits to Iranians (as well as Syrians, Cubans, Sudanese, North Koreans and Myanma). So are a number of similar training programmes. In 2010, access to the TOEFL – the standardised test required by most English-language universities for foreign students – was suspended in Iran as well, though it appears to be accessible once again.
All of these measures are counter-productive as well. Even if regime change is deemed a worthy goal, the brain drain resultant of such extreme measures will surely fail to produce the type of societies regime change is presumably intended to create.
For their part, the US Departments of Treasury and Commerce – responsible for the administration of all and sundry sanctions and export restrictions – have made some progress in ensuring citizens of Iran and other sanctioned countries can have access to communications tools, but these measures simply aren’t good enough: the restrictions remain labyrinthine and difficult to understand, leaving companies prone to over-restriction.
A need for reform
There are several, simple ways in which the controls on technology can be reformed. The first is a complete reassessment of purpose. Authorities should ask themselves: “Can this iPad be reasonably used by the Iranian regime against citizens? Does restricting citizen access to it do more good than harm?” If the answer to both questions is no, then restrictions on certain technologies should simply be lifted.
The second simple overhaul is to clarify the rules and make licensing procedures simpler and faster for companies. The current rules stymie even the best corporate lawyers and the application for a licence typically takes a minimum of 90 days.
A third way to overhaul the rules is to take the responsibility off the retailer and transfer it to customs authorities. As it stands, the “deemed export” rule – which states that selling to a restricted foreign national who is present in the US could constitute an export – is confusing at best, and at worst could enable racial profiling, as seen in the recent Apple incidents. One way around this would be to place the responsibility for enforcing export rules onto customs authorities. Surely there aren’t too many flights departing from the US for Iran – and given that the export of a laptop is already prohibited, even if that laptop is previously owned, it would make sense to enforce the rules at the point of departure, lest they fail to be enforced at all.
Ultimately, however, the answer may not be incremental reform but complete overhaul from a strategy of broad sanctions to one of targeted controls. The US Department of State has expressed support for such a model time and time again, as the National Iranian American Council has demonstrated.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claims that “[the US government’s] efforts to apply pressure on Iran are not meant to punish the Iranian people” must be backed up by action. It’s time to stop the collective punishment of the very people they claim to want to help.
Jillian York is director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork