Obama Announces New Tech Sanctions, But Effect May Be Limited

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In marking Holocaust Remembrance Day , President Obama on Monday announced new sanctions targeting governments that use new technologies, such as cell phone and internet tracking, to carry out human rights abuses. The sanctions were aimed mostly at Iran and Syria, who have used new technologies to track dissidents.

“We need to be doing everything we can to prevent and respond to these kinds of atrocities — because national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your people,” Obama said in a speech at the holocaust Museum in Washington. “These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them.  And it’s one more step that we can take toward the day that we know will come — the end of the Assad regime that has brutalized the Syrian people.”

While every little bit helps, these aren’t the sanctions that Syria and Iran fear. Technology sanctions don’t even target the governments directly, they target businesses that enable governments to track their people. This will not affect big businesses like Google, Twitter or Facebook – none of which want to help governments limit freedom of the internet (one exception being China, where they’re forced by economic interests to bow to censorship)– but rather obscure programmers sitting in Tehran, Cairo or Bahrain copying some version of malware or spyware most likely developed in Silicon Valley. (And let’s not forget, there are cyber terrorism bills going through Congress right now that would enable the U.S. government to track enemies of the state, arguably in much the same manner as Iran and Syria do, though not to the same sweeping degree.) In the grand scheme of things, given the atrocities being committed in Syria, these moves are fairly toothless – election year pabulum since Obama can’t really do much more at the moment.

In fact, the State Department already has two robust grant programs that have proven highly successful in helping Iranian and Syrian dissidents being tracked by their government. One program, Internet Freedom Grants, funds companies looking to help dissidents get online when they have limited or no access to the internet; it has dispensed $70 million since 2008. (You may remember a New York Times story about internet in a suitcase.) The State Department runs another program that helps dissidents from Egypt to China remain anonymous online when governments try to track them.

Comparatively speaking, these programs are much more sweeping and effective than the sanctions Obama announced Monday. But, as Republicans who have been pressing the President to intervene in Syria note, virtual help in any form is still a far cry from real help in the physical world. “If history teaches us anything, it is that good bureaucratic organization may be necessary to stop mass atrocities and gross human rights abuses, but it is not sufficient,” Senator John McCain said in a statement Monday. “Ultimately, ending violations of conscience requires the political will and moral courage of world leaders, especially the President of the United States. Unfortunately, that will and leadership are lacking in the case of Syria today.”