The White House announced an executive order today that details new sanctions on Iran and Syria due to each country’s use of technology for the cause of human rights abuse. The sanctions include a provision to ban U.S. visas against specific individuals, companies, or other entities who have employed technology in order to perpetuate the abuse of human rights.
The order, which is effective as of 12:01AM EST on April 23, 2012 (today), describes how the “the governments of Iran and Syria are endeavoring to rapidly upgrade their technological ability to conduct such activities.”
Cognizant of the vital importance of providing technology that enables the Iranian and Syrian people to freely communicate with each other and the outside world, as well as the preservation, to the extent possible, of global telecommunications supply chains for essential products and services to enable the free flow of information, the measures in this order are designed primarily to address the need to prevent entities located in whole or in part in Iran and Syria from facilitating or committing serious human rights abuses. In order to take additional steps with respect to the national emergencies
President Obama also included some financial restrictions in the order as a means to communicate a cautionary message to technology companies that do business within the two countries. According to comments from senior administration officials obtained by the Washington Post, today’s order was designed specifically to raise awareness among companies that provide technology to Iran and Syria and how their products might be making it easier for authoritarian governments to keep their boot heels on the necks of the political opposition.
Technology use in countries such as Syria and Iran has so far been a double-edged sword for protesters. On the one hand, communication technology such as internet access and mobile phones have been vital to organizing the opposition as well as continuing to keep the outside world informed of what is happening in the countries (and even then, we still know so little).
On the other hand, those same technologies have been employed by the governments in order to quell and suppress the opposition. In addition to the standard spying and communications blackouts, Syria has gone so far as to deploy fake versions of YouTube and Facebook, sites that have been crucial in how activists have maintained communication, in order to infect computers with malware. Additionally, recently leaked emails of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad show how the government has used social media as a way to muzzle the opposition and promote pro-regime propaganda in the outside world.
Iran has been less subtle – although only slightly – with how it manipulates technology into squashing any opposition forces. Prior to today’s order, President Obama has previously admonished the Iranian government for diminishing the access to reliable online communication. For the past two months, Iran’s government has shut down all access to various popular websites such as Gmail, YouTube, and Google, and some reports indicate that the government may have shut down the entire internet at times. These blackouts typically occur during times of expected political unrest, such as around last month’s elections.
Iranian authorities have also made no secret about their plans to eventually launch a nationalized internet by early next year. Depending on which government official you want to pay attention to, this nationalized internet could mean that the general internet will be permanently blocked in Iran or that the two internet services would be coexist (although it’s hard to imagine that the general internet would still remain unrestricted given that’s kind of the point of a national internet).