Why Washington Censors the Internet

UPDATE: The Arab Crunch, The Arabist and Michael Collins Dunn all agree that the use of censorship as a means of sanctions is an awful policy that often hurts the dissidents in these countries rather than the governments.  In addition to Syria, similar censorship sanctions have been slapped on Sudan, Iran, Korea and Cuba.  From the Arab Crunch:

The following statement has been on SourceForge.net Terms of Use for a while [1] (but who’d care to read them anyway?):

Prohibited Persons

You represent you are not a person on a list barring you from receiving services under U.S. laws or other applicable jurisdiction, including without limitations, the Denied Persons List and the Entity List, and other lists issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Industry and Security, detailed  [here] (or successor sites thereto). Users residing in countries on the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control sanction list, including Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria, may not post Content to, or access Content available through, SourceForge.net.

As of January 2008, people from those countries can browse SourceForge projects and download from them, but access to the secure server was not allowed, so they would not be able to log in to SourceForge or contribute to projects. As of January 2010, blocking went further with not allowing people coming from “banned locations” to download anything from SourceForge.net, having a response similar to this one:http://sourceforge.net/t7.php.

The emphasis on Source Forge is because it is the most recent site to censor its users.

Despite calls for internet freedom, US sanctions censor the internet in five countries, including Syria

A lot has been made about internet freedom since internet giant argued with the Chinese government over censorship and hacking issues.  Perhaps the biggest reaction was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech on internet freedom – speech which threatens the relationship between the US and China.  So what does all this have to do with the Middle East?  Turns out all of the talk about America’s dedication to internet freedom is hypocritical fluff – well kind of.

Today’s news carried two articles that show what some might call the complexities (and some call the hypocrisies) of US policy.  Carl Bildt, the ex-PM and current FM of Sweden, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post crying for a more open internet:

Today it is the freedom of cyberspace that is under threat from regimes as keen as dictatorships past to control and limit the possibilities of their citizens. They are trying to build firewalls against freedom.  At the end of the day, I am convinced they are fighting a losing battle — that cyber walls are as certain to fall as the walls of concrete once did.

[tweetmeme]

Conversely, Idaf writes in Syrian Comment about the censorship of Syrian access to the internet by the US.  According to Idaf Sorceforge, Microsoft, GoDaddy, RIM and Cisco all limit access to popular technological items, computer certification courses and internet sites to Syrian nationals in and out of  Syria. Furthermore, US companies in the Gulf refuse to hire Syrian engineers due to the threat of legal action by the US Treasury Department.  From Idaf (my emphasis):

Sourceforge is only the latest Internet technology company to join Washington’s call to target Syrian citizens with sanctions. Claiming to be abiding by US law, a long list on US based businesses have already denied their services to Syria’s increasingly Internet savvy youth…

Ironically, the US government has long since outstripped the Syrian government as the main censor of the web for tech savvy Syrians. The Syrian government is all thumbs when it comes to censorship of the Internet.  Any smart Syrian will tell you his government’s efforts to block websites is practically useless. The overwhelming majority of internet surfers in Syria can easily bypass the efforts of government blocking through the use of proxy sites and free tools. US businesses have oddly become the real censors of the Syrian web.

Not only does this report come ironically soon after Clinton’s speech, it also comes during a time when Syria seems to be warming to the West.  For a long while we have heard the ongoing talk of a US Ambassador to Damascus, but Syria also seems ready to engage with NGO’s in an effort to build civil society in the country.  Furthermore, Syrian is slowly becoming a tourist hot-spot for the west.

It is tough to say if the US companies withdrew from Syria for personal reasons (doubtful, though – free market capitalism, right?) or because of pressure from the US government.  Either way, censoring a country that has made giant strides in opening its doors in the last 10 years while speaking about internet freedom is a terrible, and terribly hypocritical, policy.

Photo from Feross

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