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#NetFreedom in Syria, Between Sanctions and Censorship

This post is directly re-published from Anas Qtiesh’s blog, but I agree with it 100%.

A delegation of US tech companies and policymakers are visiting Syria today and holding a meeting with President Bashar Al Assad and high-ranking officials. The tech delegation (#techdel on Twitter, and “techdel” hereafter) came after coordination on high diplomatic levels and as a part of the Obama administration’s policy of engaging with Syria, according to William Burns, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.

A tweet by Alec Ross, the techdel’s leader, summed up the United States’ attitude towards the visit:

This trip to #Syria will test Syria’s willingness to engage more responsibly on issues of #netfreedom

Of course Net freedom is craved by Syrian users; Censorship is strict and many popular websites are blocked by the Syrian government (Facebook and YouTube to name a couple), and perceived cyber-dissidents have many a time received prison sentences ranging between 3-5 years in most cases. What the techdel seems oblivious to is how much the U.S. sanctions on Syria are complicit in further limiting internet freedoms for Syrian users. Jared Cohen, Member of Secretary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff and a member of the delegation, tweeted:

Big gap between older & younger Syrians on challenges to business. Youth blame lack of education, not sanctions

Just to show how misguided that statement is, I’ll draw up a few comparisons between Syrian governmental censorship and U.S. imposed IT sanctions:

Syrian Governmental Censorship U.S. Imposed Sanctions
Blocks (.blogspot), a major blogging platform. Denies access to blogging software such as Microsoft Live Writer.
Blocks Youtube, #1 video hosting website Denies access to video viewing and editing software (Real Player, Windows Movie Maker, etc.)
Blocks many popular online services and websites Blocks essential software needed to have a complete surfing experience (Chrome Browser, Java, Flash, etc.)
Heavily monitors and blocks websites, conducts surveillance Tools for monitoring and surveillance often provided by US corporations.
Has adopted a phobic attitude towards new technologies (e.g. broadband internet penetration is still negligible, GPS enabled devices are banned). Further hampers development by banning export of any U.S. developed technological solutions. This has affected the adoption of broadband Internet, and means that the all the benefits that come with mobile Internet access is delayed for years to come.

According to Jared Cohen, the techdel also addressed issues of intellectual property:

Strong words from US techdel to Syria on intellectual property & emphasis on enacting laws to address this in short & long-terms

Again, US policymakers are requesting that Syrian authorities help them enforce measures against software piracy, of software that’s originally banned from Syria under the US sanctions. I don’t know what message they are trying to send here, but again it shows that the techdel came with a pre-prepared speech that’s hardly based on the facts on the ground, and shows little desire to have a proactive discussion with Syrian counterparts. It’s ludicrous that Syrian officials are asked to help effectively enforce sanctions against their country; The fine people from techdel seem to disagree. The fact of the matter remains, pirated software is the only choice for Syrians now, and in the absence of the ability to purchase original copies; all U.S. demands for measures against piracy are painfully misguided.

I personally have little hope for any positive outcome to come out of this initiative. Both sides are hardly affected by the current situation and the real victim here is the Syrian youth and entrepreneurs who are having to spend their time and energy to come up with ways to go around limitations and hurdles from local and U.S. policies. Those wasted talents would have been better invested in an [infant], yet promising, Syrian IT sector.

I hereby start a campaign to call on policymakers from Syria and the US to end unjust policies and practices that are adversely affecting Syrian IT infrastructure, and users.

How you can help

Start by contacting US policymakers, especially if you’re based in the United States.  If you’re a Syrian blogger, blogging in Arabic is a good way to attract attention and garner support internally.

– Important contacts:

You can call or write to Sec. Clinton’s office:
Phone: +1 202-647-5291
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520

You can also contact advisers and members of Sec. Clinton’s team:
Alec Ross (@AlecJRoss on Twitter), Adviser for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Jared Cohen (@JaredCohen on Twitter), Member of Secretary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff.

Use hash tag #freenetsy on Twitter to make it easier to organize and track tweets, and make sure to join the Facebook group page and invite your friends to join.

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