On Wednesday, an important policy shift, which the Enough Project has been urging for over a year, came into effect. These adjustments to the U.S. government’s decades-old embargo on Sudan should make it easier for people in that country to get access to U.S made personal telecommunications devices like smartphones, encryption tools, and crowd sourcing software. This is a big deal for Sudanese journalists, activists and human rights defenders who face severe restrictions on their ability to communicate safely and securely. Here’s what you need to know:
1. What’s new?
New regulations from the U.S. Department of the Treasury should make it easier for Sudanese to access smart phones, satellite phones, security updates, and anti-virus software. According to the Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Sudan, Jerry Lanier, “This general license alerts banks, companies, and private citizens that the export and re-export of these items is now permissible under U.S. law. These changes are consistent with [the U.S. government’s] commitment to promote freedom of expression through access to communication tools”
2. So, before today, it was illegal for Sudanese people to have access to iPhones, Skype or WhatsApp?
President Bill Clinton’s 1997 executive order prohibits the export to Sudan of any goods, technology or software from the United States or by a U.S. person, wherever they are located. Those regulations were adjusted in 2010 to include an exemption that allowed the export of personal communication tools that were available “at no cost” but the rules still prevented Sudanese from accessing anything that cost money. So, WhatsApp works because its free but the paid features on Skype or the Apple store were officially blocked. Now, that has changed.
Practically, even before Wednesday’s announcement, many young Sudanese were using virtual private networks to access these tools — effectively circumventing our sanctions regulations. Others were buying products abroad and then going to unsanctioned sites to get updates and security patches for their software. Unfortunately, there is evidence that some of the sites many depend on are bogus traps set by their own Cyber Jihadist Unit. As a result, the patches and updates available on those platforms include backdoors that the government can use to infiltrate activists’ computers, smart phones and networks.
3. Who will these changes benefit?
The average Sudanese person should benefit enormously from this shift, especially since their own government has made access to information extremely restricted. Activists, in particular, will benefit from increased access to tools that allow them to safely communicate, organize and share information. Earlier this week, the government seized all the print runs of 14 newspapers. With greater access to personal communications technologies, the average Sudanese person will have more options and more information sources. Also, U.S. businesses, especially those offering encryption and secure communications technologies, now have a new market of paying customers.
4. But, won’t these relaxed regulations allow the government of Sudan to benefit too?
The new rules only apply to widely available technology that Sudan’s government probably has easy access to already. Anyone, including agents of the government, who buys a computer or smart phone in France or Dubai can download all the patches and apps and bring them back to government headquarters. Undoubtedly, easing access to some of these same technologies inside Sudan makes it marginally simpler for some within the government who want to take advantage of American-made technologies. However, those government entities on the U.S. Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals list are officially still blocked from accessing these items.
Most importantly, the changes to the regulations will provide a huge benefit to the average civilian user who may be stuck in country. The revised rules should also be a boon for those who have previously travelled abroad and bought a device that now has outdated software.
5. How will Sudanese pay for these tools since the Central Bank of Sudan is on our blacklist?
The biggest question mark around these changes is the practical impact that these changed regulations will have within Sudan, where the blacklisted Central Bank remains a financial hub. The Department of the Treasury says
that “in general, any transaction ordinarily incident to a licensed transaction” is also authorized as long as “such payments do not involve a debit to a blocked account or a transfer of blocked property.” In plain English, this means that payments for these tools are likely to be allowed unless they pass through the Central Bank of Sudan or other banks currently under U.S. sanctions.6. Who has been asking for these changes?
Sudanese civil society groups have been pushing for these changes for some time. Mohammed Hashim Kambal, coordinator of the The Sudanese Initiative to Lift US Technology Sanctions from Sudan campaign explains their work as an “appeal to empower Sudanese citizens through improved access to ICTs [Information and Communications Technologies] so that they can be more proactive on issues linked to democratic transformation, humanitarian assistance and technology education — an appeal to make the sanctions smarter.” Last April, the Enough Project and Humanity United echoed their plea in an open letter to Secretary John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the New America Foundation have also been calling for these changes, noting that similar revisions have had a positive impact in Iran and Syria.
7. So, even though Sudan’s foreign minister is gloating about it, this is good news?
Yes. Even though some are spinning this as a win for the government of Sudan, it’s actually much better news for opposition activists and their allies. In Sudan, where in less than a decade the number of internet users has grown from around 400,000 to more than 8 million, these adjustments to the sanctions regime have the potential to catalyze change.