US to Review Internet Sanctions Policy?

Is the US rethinking its internet censorship policy?

A while back Sec. of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech about the need for internet freedom.  The speech came immediately after the well-documented tussle between internet giant Google and the Chinese government.  In addition to briefly endangering relations between the US and China, Clinton demonstrated some technological hypocrisy as the US has used internet restrictions as a substitute for traditional sanctions for some time:

Conversely, Idaf writes in Syrian Commentabout 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.

[tweetmeme] Reactions to the Us policy were predictable: it targets Syrian citizens and not the government by blocking popular sites such as Sorceforge and the Google Chrome web browser (though it could be the individual companies that are refusing service).  Now it appears that the US is reviewing its flawed policy.

Laura Rozen writes today about a delegation of businessmen (including representatives from Microsoft and Cisco) and State Department officials are in Syria this week to promote internet freedom.  Officials from the US government seem to view the delegation as ‘f****** idiotic’ or a low risk gamble:

One House Democratic staffer, briefed in advance of the trip by representatives from the State Department Near East Affairs bureau, called it “f***ing idiotic.”

The staffer said State people briefing congressional staff on the trip said, “we are going to infiltrate them (Syria) with technology without them even knowing it.”

“It’s a stupid thing to do,” he said. “Because they are so enamored of their own brilliance. It’s ridiculous. They don’t know what they are doing if they think they are going to subvert the Syrian government with technology and Syria won’t even notice.”

Another Washington Middle East hand was more sympathetic.

“If it means I’ll someday be able to use my Blackberry in Damascus, I’m all for it,“ he said. “More seriously, that’s silly. It’s not like we’re sneaking these guys in. What do we lose by showing Assad what he stands to gain, even if it won’t lead to any short-term changes in behavior?”

Rozen (and Alec Ross of the Wall Street Journal) frame the delegation as an attempt to pry open the Syrian government while presenting lucrative business opportunities.  If the reports of US censorship for a few months ago are true, it would seem as though the current trip to Syria is more of a presentation of certain technological carrots in order to push the Syrian government towards social reform (or perhaps towards a reconsideration of its ties with Iran).

Of course, there is the possibility that the US government has seen that its internet censorship is doing little good while harming the innocent people.  Either way, the policy needs to be reviewed.

Photo from Slash News

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