Time to Rethink Tech Sanctions Against Sudan

They are making it difficult for activists to use secure communication tools and putting them at risk.

A civil defense officer inspects the scene of a fire at a popular market in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, on September 29, 2013.
A civil defense officer inspects the scene of a fire at a market in Khartoum, Sudan, on Sept. 29, 2013. U.S. sanctions may be inadvertently aiding the Sudanese government by blocking access to critical personal communication tools.

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

Last September, Sudan fell into digital darkness. Internet traffic dropped off the map for 24 hours—the largest national blackout since 2011, when Egypt was disconnected from the Internet at the height of the Arab Spring movement. It’s likely that the government in Khartoum instituted the blackout in response to protests and rioting across the country, especially since the digital crackdown occurred at the same time that riot police descended upon protesters in the streets.

But the Sudanese government is not the only one making it more difficult for individuals to stay digitally connected. Currently, Sudan is one of five countries in the world subject to comprehensive U.S. sanctions, which are designed to change governments’ behavior. But some of the provisions of those sanctions have become outdated—especially when it comes to new technologies like personal communication tools. To protect people’s rights online, it is more important than ever to update U.S. sanctions in order to support the free flow information, as we argue in a recent policy paper by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute. (New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.)

You might think that the Internet doesn’t play an important role in Sudan. But Dalia Haj-Omar, a Sudanese activist and blogger, told us in an email that the Internet is “the only platform for free civic engagement in Sudan.” Internet penetration rates are significant. Out of a population of roughly 35 million, 7.35 million have access to the Internet, according to the International Telecommunications Union and the World Bank. As Freedom House says in its 2013 “Freedom on the Net” report, “Increasingly affordable and reliable internet service has enabled Sudanese citizens to use digital media tools to share information, communicate with the international community, document news not covered in the heavily censored traditional media, and organize protest movements against government repression.” For example, according to the report, many protesters communicated via WhatsApp, a free mobile messaging application that may be less vulnerable to government snooping than phone calls or text messages. Social media helped magnify the voices of the opposition and played a role in the spread of the protests from Khartoum to other cities across the country.

“What we saw in September was a popular revolt, with the most diverse and populous participation ever witnessed in the last 24 years under the ruling National Congress Party’s rule,” writes Haj-Omar. In response, President Omar al-Bashir’s government has engaged in a swift and forceful crackdown. The government closed public schools for nearly a month to prevent students from congregating and organizing. It also included creating a “Cyber Jihadist Unit” that reportedly hacks into email and social media accounts and monitors websites like Facebook and Twitter. News outlets that are sympathetic to the opposition have been increasingly censored, while online journalists and netizens have been harassed. The Sudanese government denied responsibility for the September Internet shutdown. However, analysis suggests that there was a coordinated effort to remove Sudan from the Internet—which likely requires the size and resources of a state actor. Connections were restored the following day, but they remained slow and cumbersome in many areas for at least a few days, effectively restricting access to social networks like Facebook and YouTube.

Caught in the middle are U.S. sanctions. Initially designed to put pressure on the government, these technology restrictions have become outdated, and some of the provisions inadvertently aid the regime by blocking access to critical personal communications tools—to the detriment of the Sudanese people. Companies like Yahoo and Samsung, unsure whether they can legally make their products available and afraid of the risk, often err on the side of overcompliance when blocking their products in Sudan and other sanctioned countries. (Just this week, for example, the online education website Coursera announced that its materials would no longer be available in Sudan, Iran, and Cuba due to concerns about violating U.S. sanctions.) The result: American tools like anti-virus software and secure chat, as well as mobile app stores like Google Play, remain unavailable to ordinary people in Sudan, which in turn helps the Sudanese government maintain tighter control over the free flow of information within its borders. If chat applications, anti-filtering and anti-virus tools, and critical security updates aren’t available, people are forced to turn to other technologies to communicate and access information.

“The U.S. sanctions have empowered the government security agencies against the activists online, because there [are] few anonymity tools available for them, and many of them are not tech savvy. Not being able to update your software makes you an easy catch for the highly trained security officers,” Anwar Dafa-alla, a Sudanese activist and founder of Nafeer IT, told us in an email. And Helena Puig Larrauri, who works on peace-building initiatives in Sudan, writes, “The embargo has a particular effect on anyone trying to use technology for the social good.”

Their comments are reminiscent of reports from the 1990s that led to the smart-sanctions reform process, which aimed to minimize the unintended negative consequences of trade embargoes. A similar trend has started to emerge with regard to personal communication technology. In 2010, for example, the U.S. Treasury Department authorized the export of “certain services and software over the Internet” to Sudan (as well as Iran and Cuba), including mass market communications tools such as instant messaging, chat, email, and social network services that are free and publicly available.

But since then, there’s been little action to clarify or expand the scope of this authorization. The U.S. government has updated policies toward Iran several times since 2010. The most recent, General License D, authorized U.S. companies to export software, services, and hardware for personal communications purposes. But there haven’t been changes to the treatment of personal communications tools in the Sudanese sanctions. Sudanese civil society groups launched a campaign last week calling for the United States to change its policies.

Even a complete overhaul of the sanctions won’t prevent a total Internet blackout—but it will make it easier for Sudanese civilians to communicate and organize. And it would send an important message that the U.S. sanctions will no longer do the work for the Sudanese government to stifle online communication.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.