For six years, Syrian users have been affected by U.S. government trade sanctions that exclude certain goods from the Syrian market. Specifically, the Syria Accountability Act (SAA) of 2004 prohibits the export of most goods containing more than 10% U.S.-manufactured component parts to Syria, with the exceptions of food and medicine. Sudan, Cuba, North Korea, and Iran are all also affected by similar sanctions.
In the past year, the fact that the sanctions against Syria include software has garnered significant attention. Last year, in an attempt to comply with the sanctions, LinkedIn unintentionally cut off Syrian users entirely (the sanctions require that sites block software downloads, not general access), a decision that was quickly reversed. Web-hosting companies have also kicked off Syrian, Iranian, and other users, some of which were not actually prohibited from use.
The discussion recently reached a fever pitch when, a day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a free and open Internet, Syrian users noticed they could no longer access open-source software community SourceForge. Syrian Abdulrahman Idlbi, writing for ArabCrunch, broke the news:
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.
As some of you may already know… SourceForge.net has suddenly blocked Syrian & Sudanese users on the basis of being compliant to US law.
This has obviously opened up the debate (again) about how ‘Open’, ‘Open Source’ really is… and how susceptible it is to the shackles of Politics and National laws. I'm not looking to open any political debate… but there must be a way to help.
In an excellent analysis on Syria Comment, guest blogger Idaf questions whether or not the sanctions against Syria are helpful, and questions who they serve:
Does this serve American interests? It is hard to see how. The stated objective of the policy is to “stop US technologies from reaching terrorists.” The only problem with this lofty goal is that all the “terrorist” organizations that America accuses Syria of supporting are based outside Syria: Hamas is in Palestine; Hizbullah is in Lebanon; and Iraqi insurgents live in Iraq. The US sanctions none off these countries. On the contrary, US IT corporations pour money into these three countries under CSR, development and market expansion plans. And besides, the technology of these companies reaches Syrians through third parties. Of course, the restriction make the technology more expensive and it annoys us, but we get it. Cisco routers can be purchased in Damascus; they are brought from Lebanon. Cheap Chinese knock offs are also easily obtained in the Syrian market. One can also argue that Washington’s policy is also counter-productive because it will cause long term damage to US businesses in these region.
On the Middle East Journal's Editor's Blog, Michael Collins Dunn shares the sentiment, remarking:
US restrictions have been used to limit open-source software access in countries under US sanctions, sometimes harming dissidents more than governments. Nations are still trying to understand how to regulate (or not regulate) new media, and in general it would seem greater access is normally a good thing. Sanctions that in effect help regimes control their populations unintentionally should be reconsidered.
Finally, SourceForge staff have commented on the block, explaining the law with which they're required to comply. They did state, however:
We regret deeply that these sanctions may impact individuals who have no malicious intent along with those whom the rules are designed to punish. However, until either the designated governments alter the practices that got them on the sanctions list, or the US government’s policies change, the situation must remain as it is.