A notable news item this morning is that of the United States’ lifting two bits of its sanctions on Syria, one of which happens to be its ban on the import/export of IT, including hardware and software (the other is on the exportation of goods to the Syrian aviation industry). Syrian envoy to the U.S. Imad Moustapha (a blogger in his own right) announced the news yesterday, stating that more sanctions will be lifted soon.
I explained the sanctions in this Huffington Post piece in April:
The Bush administration implemented sanctions against Syria in 2004, accusing the regime of meddling in Lebanese affairs, fostering the Iraqi insurgency, and supporting Hezbollah and Hamas. The sanctions against Syria in particular apply to exports and reexports, including software. Specifically, U.S. companies are prohibited from providing “operation” technology and software, “sales” technology, and software updates.
Since the sanctions were enacted, a number of Web-based companies have had to carefully examine their terms of service and restrict users from accessing certain areas of sites. Google, for example, allows Syrian users to access Gmail and iGoogle, but not Google Gears or Gmail video chat. Facebook, though filtered by Syrian ISPs, offers Syria as a location option, and allows users to access its services. Only companies such as Amazon.com, which sells books and other products by mail, and GoDaddy.com, which offers domain names, have been forced to prohibit Syrian use altogether. The blog ArabCrunch offers more details on other social networking sites that implement sanctions.
The lifting of the IT ban seems, to me, to be low-hanging fruit, the simplest way to please (or appease) the public while getting rid of a relatively useless rule that wasn’t doing much good anyway, given the ease and proliferation of people downloading software while out of the country, or sharing it with one another on USB keys and CDs. Moreover, it affects ordinary Syrians more than anyone – those who want to use Google Earth or buy an iPhone – isolating the online population even further (Syria, of course, blocks a number of sites of its own accord).
It will be interesting to see if the lifting of the IT sanctions has any effect on the Syrian government’s Internet filtering, which seems to be easing in minor ways (friends report some ISPs are filtering less than others, and that the mobile web is still entirely unfiltered).
On a side note, I’m saddened, though not surprised, by the comments on the Jerusalem Post article on the subject (which happens to be only one of six indexed by Google News, and certainly the most prominent publication in the list). The comments, mostly from self-identified Jews, both American and Israeli, are full of bigoted sentiments toward Obama, false claims that he’s either not American or is Muslim, and ridiculous assumptions about how lifting the ban will result in sanctions being lifted from Iran and North Korea. It’s just tiring to see the same old comments lumping Syria in with those two countries, when it so clearly doesn’t belong there.