…but Syrians and Sudanese don’t. Seems like the State Department is once again deciding who is most worthy of their net freedom agenda. The latest announcement (via VOA) states that Google, after negotiating with the State Department, can now offer Google Chrome, Picasa, and Google Earth to Iranian net users. Says Google’s Scott Rubin:
The citizens of Iran will be able to download three Google products: Google Chrome, which is our browser, Picasa, which is our photo-sharing software, and Google Earth, which provides users a 3-D way to scan and world, and users can add their own layers to earth to create their own version about what they want to share with people about the world where they live.
Great news for Iranians, who frankly, should never have been restricted from using communications tools in the first place. But hey, that’s just collateral damage, right? The Iranian government is the real target, and you know how much damage they can do with Chrome.
Okay, so perhaps I’m being a bit harsh toward the State Department; after all, it was Google that applied for the license, right? Was Google unaware that Syrians, Sudanese, and Cubans are also restricted from accessing their products? I’m certain they were, so it seeks to reason that in their “negotiations” with the government, they made a conscious decision to provide those products only to the Iranian market.
So what difference does this really make? Not much. Syrians have been downloading Chrome, Earth, and even Gears (not one of the tools made available to Iranians yet) via proxy for years. They access Picasa through VPNs, simple proxies, commercial tools, etc. Last year, I interviewed a group of Syrians about the export controls and the effect they have on their lives. Most said it didn’t matter too much, that it was simply an annoyance, but that it affected how they felt about the United States.
And that is why this matters. The US has the opportunity to change a few minds here, to warm a few Syrian netizens to them, and instead, they continue to focus on Iran, apparently in the hopes that by continuing to court Iranians, they’ll manage to effect regime change. With Syria, on the other hand, perhaps they don’t want to rock the boat (and with Google Earth, of course, there’s a very real chance that the Syrian government would block it anyway).
I’ll certainly admit that perhaps there’s some delicate bit of foreign policy I don’t understand here, but frankly, I doubt it. To me, this is about how the State Department’s Net Freedom policy is hypocritical. There are areas of foreign policy in which countries will undoubtedly not be treated equal, but this should not be one of them. If Internet freedom is part of the American brand, then everyone is worthy of it.
Additional Reading: Lee Baker’s excellent paper, “The Unintended Consequences of U.S. Export Restrictions on Software and Online Services for American Foreign Policy and Human Rights,” Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, Vol. 2, Number 2, Spring 2010.