Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Net freedom for all? Not so much…

I’m a bit late to the party with comments on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Net freedom speech last Thursday; I was deep in work that day and spent the weekend doing fun things (like visiting with friends and finally seeing Avatar). Still, though there have been plenty of excellent analyses of the speech (check out Ethan Zuckerman‘s or Marc Lynch‘s), I’m finding that there’s one topic everyone seems to have left out: sanctions. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

As Ethan said, “It was encouraging to hear Secretary Clinton sounding like a dyed in the wool cyberutopian.” Agreed; the fact that this administration is giving this much attention to any free expression issue makes me happy, but especially that they’re on the ball with issues of online expression. And of course, I liked the fact that Clinton took notice of how the Internet truly is connecting people.

Clinton also weighed the challenges of hate speech online, intellectual property theft, and anonymity, but claimed that “these challenges must not become an excuse for governments to systematically violate the rights and privacy of those who use the internet for peaceful political purposes.” Good again.

And like Lynch, I noticed that the most attention was paid to the usual suspects (Iran, China, Egypt), and so-called “enemies,” while Jordan (which last week decided to apply its press law to online speech) and other “friends” were ignored.

But what I noticed the most is what was missing. Ethan commented briefly on what he called the “export control issue,” saying that it’s possible that the recent Google/China controversy could revive discussion of using export bans to “prohibit American companies from doing business with countries that censor” (mentioning also that a better idea might be trade sanctions instead).

But absolutely no attention has been paid to the countries where citizens’ online activities are heavily restricted by US economic sanctions: Syria, Iran, Sudan, Cuba and North Korea (though the latter two are so bogged down in their own countries’ censorship that I’ll focus on the first three).

Though I’m less schooled in the nuances of each country’s restrictions, the basic gist is this: Syria, Iran, and Sudan are affected by sanctions that place those countries’ markets off-limits to US software companies. When it comes to physical software (operating systems, for example), there seem to be plenty of ways around it–obviously, none of those countries have built their own OS just yet, and there is an exemptions process. But when it comes to software downloads, US companies are pressured to reverse-block (using geolocational filtering) users from Syrian, Sudanese, and Iranian IP addresses, so that the users can’t download.

Frequently, however, this results in the companies overblocking access, and preventing users from accessing their site altogether. I wrote about this last year after LinkedIn blocked access to all Syrian users (they restored it, but Sudanese users still can’t get there). Hosting services have done the same, and most recently, open source software site SourceForge blocked access to users in those countries (an act that has been greatly questioned, given the nature of the software SourceForge hosts). It’s been pointed out that part of the Open Source Initiative’s credo ironically reads: “No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups
The license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons.”

Obviously, there’s a lot at stake when it comes to sanctions, and I’m not making the case either way (in this post) for removal of general trade or export restrictions. But I fail to see how software restrictions affect the behavior of states; in my view, they only seek to harm the very citizens the U.S. portends to be interested in helping. And I find it extremely ironic that last summer, the State Department urged US company Twitter to hold off on maintenance to help the Iranian people communicate, yet continues to restrict those same Iranians from buying US-made smart phones, or downloading essential software and applications (which could potentially include circumvention and anonymity tools).

If Clinton means it when she says, “We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas” then such policy ought to be changed. Simple as that.

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