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[liberationtech] Online tools blocked in Syria. Its probably not what you think.

John Scott-Railton john.scott.railton at gmail.com
Tue Aug 21 10:49:32 PDT 2012


Hi Rafal 
(and Libtech)

> I'm a bit surprised. Is there a specific case where a license has been denied, or were services are no longer offered because of export restrictions?

Thanks for the question. Some of these issues are articulated in the petition text, and James Ball writing in the Washington Post on the 16th wrote this much more clearly than I can:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/sanctions-aimed-at-syria-and-iran-are-hindering-opposition-activists-say/2012/08/14/c4c88998-e569-11e1-936a-b801f1abab19_story.html

To answer your question, here are two of things you can't get right now in Syria:

Targeted Advertising Blocked
Problem:  Inability to do targeted advertising for users registered in Syrian space. E.g. purchasing PSAs on security issues on Facebook. This makes it difficult to do effective messaging on key issues,  or for other groups providing information to direct, say, social media users to their content.  
Current Ad-hoc Solutions:  Information provided in higher-cost, more labor-intensive ways (e.g. trainings to small groups, other kinds of messaging that hit much smaller, informal pools of people etc).

Mobile Apple App Store, Google Play both blocked
Problem:  Lack of access means inability to securely and straightforwardly access a full range of tools in app stores, including mobile security tools, connectivity solutions (e.g. VPNs) as well as news and information. Bypassing these requires jailbreaking phones.

User Quote on Mobile in Conflict: " if an iphone user wants to stream a protest or shelling he needs to jailbreak his phone or find a proxy that they can use to download the app or jailbreak the iphone...then i send him a cracked copy of the apps...[then] he then needs to upload it onto the phone then he is able to use the vpn or streaming app"

Current Ad-hoc Solutions:  Unwieldy work arounds. Doesn't work for everyone, phones must be made more vulnerable by being jailbroken.

There are many other issues, including access to Sourceforge, auto-updates for Java, Windows Activation and so on. As the petition frames it, the complexity of this issue stems from the roles played both by sanctions and export licensure, and by companies own reluctance to undertake the legal determination of whether their products are legal (e.g. under General License #5). 

The end result is that Syrians don't have access to important tools.  Both government and private sector actors / tool developers have an imperative to address this, we think.  On the government end, we think that encouraging better guidance and clarity and review of licensure for Syria is a natural step, and a stronger signal to the private sector. Recent efforts to review and ease sanctions on Iran are a good model to start with.


> Anyway, I'm interested what prompted this petition as our organization is about to embark on ramping up of a large-scale activity focused on Syria and digital safety.

Good luck! 

Very best,

John


> 
> Many thanks
> 
> Rafal
> 
> Sent from my PsiPhone
> 
> On 2012-08-21, at 2:18 AM, John Scott-Railton <john.scott.railton at gmail.com> wrote:
> 
>> Hi All,
>> 
>> You're likely aware of US export restrictions intended to limit the Assad Regime's access to monitoring and filtering gear.  But there is another side of this coin: unintended and negative effects on Syrians' access to personal communications and security technologies. This inadvertently compliments the regime's own filtering efforts.
>> 
>>  A few hours ago, an online petition*  started circulating, requesting that the Departments of Commerce and Treasury review and  streamline export licensure, guidance and review to address the problem.  The petition is hosted by Change.org, and led by Dlshad Othman, a Syrian opposition IT expert.
>> 
>> Please consider signing, and spreading the petition link: www.change.org/syria
>> 
>> I've written a  quick summary.
>> 
>> TL;DR for Libtech:
>> 
>> -Some key software and online services, including security tools, aren't making their way to Syrians. 
>> - Even if the tools are exempted under the letter of the law
>> -Syrian digital activists don't understand why this is happening, given official statements from the US that say these tools should be available.  
>> - Last week, the Washington Post laid out the problem: Washington Post Article
>> -Sanctions are complicated, and the process of licensure is quite long.  It can be resource consuming, even for big players.
>> -Penalties for violations are severe
>> -Companies' risk-averse compliance regimes are partly responsible for why many tools currently legal under the letter of current law, or whose legality could be quickly determined, have not been made available to Syrians.
>> -Companies will benefit from clearer signals and guidance from Departments of Commerce and Treasury 
>> -A new general license is needed: it should give clearer and more explicit exemptions on personal communications and security technologi balancing legitimate concerns over cryptography and financial transactions with the need to protect the safety of at-risk populations
>> - For specific licenses, a more streamlined process also needs to be implemented, giving clearer formal and informal guidance to companies, and a faster case-by-case licensing mechanism for companies and NGOs 
>> 
>> 
>> * (full disclosure, I'm involved) 
>> 
>> 
>> 
>> Best,
>> 
>> John Scott-Railton
>> 
>> 
>> 
>> John Scott-Railton
>> www.johnscottrailton.com
>> 
>> PGP key ID: 0x3e0ccb80778fe8d7
>> Fingerprint: FDBE BE29 A157 9881 34C7  8FA6 3E0C CB80 778F E8D7
>> 
>> --
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