Obama’s executive order targets Iran, Syria, and firms who help them

April 24, 2012

No Govt internet controlLast week, Craig Blakeley and Jeff Matsuura wrote a post about Iran’s “Cyber Army.”

This “Cyber Army” is a group of 120,000 online activists assisted and trained by the Iranian government to advance its interests.

Specifically, the Cyber Army focuses on filtering websites in Iran, monitoring the email and online activity of individuals on a watch list, and observing the content of Internet traffic and information posted on web blogs.

Considering the Iranian government’s history of absolute intolerance toward its opposition, it should come as no surprise that Iran’s Cyber Army monitors Internet traffic to locate and suppress dissidents.

Unfortunately, “suppress” doesn’t mean “write a strongly worded letter to,” but instead “kidnap, beat, torture, and sexually abuse.”

In a related story, President Obama just issued an executive order (EO) this past Sunday with the rather long-winded title,

“Blocking the Property and Suspending Entry Into the United States of Certain Persons With Respect to Grave Human Rights Abuses by the Governments of Iran and Syria via Information Technology.”

As can be surmised from this title, the EO targets the use of information technology by the governments of Iran and Syria to commit human rights abuses (such as those mentioned earlier).

And what punishment does the EO provide against those who use technology for these nefarious ends?

Asset freezes and suspensions of entry into the U.S.

That really ought to show ‘em, right?

Not really (in case the sarcasm wasn’t apparent).

Syria and Iran know better than to keep any of their assets in U.S. hands, and it’s not like any Syrian or Iranian government officials would want to travel to the U.S. anyhow since they could very well be arrested for their part in those human rights abuses.

Then what’s the point of the EO?

True, the EO provides a specific list of targets, all of which are Iranian and Syrian government entities (except for the inclusion of one individual: Ali Mamluk, the Director of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate).

However, the EO contains a second, catch-all provision apart from this list.

The provision directs that the order extends to “any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with or at the recommendation of the Secretary of State” who has, in any way, assisted the Syrian and Iranian governments in their endeavors.

This includes selling, leasing, or “otherwise providing” technology to either government.

Why is this significant?

Let’s just say that while these oppressive regimes are pretty good at suppressing dissidents, they aren’t so great at developing the cutting edge information technology to help them do it.

American IT companies, however, are.

Blue Coat Systems, for example, is currently being probed by the U.S. government because, “somehow,” its Internet-blocking equipment made its way to Syria, where it is being used to track and crackdown on protesters.

Outside of the Syrian and Iranian situations, there’s the glaring example of Cisco, who assisted in constructing (i.e. designed, created, and maintained) the “Great Firewall of China,” an extremely efficient national censorship and surveillance system.

This system has also been used to commit many human rights abuses (but because of China’s heavy international influence, it’s very unlikely that we’ll be seeing an executive order targeting China anytime soon).

So, while an asset freeze against Iranian and Syrian government entities won’t be making anyone even blink, an asset freeze against, say, California-based IT corporation with millions or billions in assets would.

Actually, an asset freeze could mean the end of such a company.

The intent behind Obama’s executive order was, no doubt, that American IT companies would recognize this, and refrain from any further supplying of such equipment to Iran or Syria (or to any other oppressive foreign governments that may be subject to any such orders in the future).

We can only hope that this sufficiently deters IT firms from assisting oppressive regimes abroad, since the moral and ethical implications don’t seem to impact some such companies.