February 19, 2018

When Technology Sanctions Backfire: The Syria Blackout

American policymakers face an increasingly complex set of choices about whether to permit commerce with “repressive regimes” for core internet technologies. The more straightforward cases involve prohibitions on US import of critical network technology from states that we suspect may include surveillance backdoors. For example, fears of “cyber espionage” have fueled a push for import bans on routers and other equipment from China.

Things get more complicated when the United States chooses to place sanctions on technologies that it exports to “repressive regimes.” In October of last year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation revealed that routers made by US-based BlueCoat Systems had been used in Syria to filter dissent. EFF noted that this appeared to violate export controls established by the US Government, and chastised BlueCoat. At the time, this seemed like an odd stance for the EFF. On the one hand, there were clear harms to citizens on the ground. On the other hand, EFF has helped to lead the charge against the ill-fated attempt to criminalize exportation of digital tools. I am somewhat skeptical about the ability to draw a bright line between speech-enhancing tools and tools of oppression — especially when general purpose computers can easily be used for both.
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