WASHINGTON — The Internet and social media helped fuel last year's "Arab Spring" pro-democracy uprisings. Now, the Obama administration wants to prevent companies from using the same technology to help repressive regimes in Syria and Iran target dissidents.
Taking aim at what it called "digital guns for hire," the administration unveiled new sanctions against major telecom firms in those countries as well as the governments themselves for recording cellphone calls, monitoring Internet traffic and employing other technological tools to "facilitate grave human rights abuses."
"These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them," President Obama said in announcing the sanctions Monday in a speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The sanctions freeze any assets or property in the United States controlled by the companies or the Syrian and Iranian governments. The sanctions also ban government officials or company executives implicated in using technology to "track and target citizens for violence" from obtaining visas to enter the U.S.
The U.S. has used sanctions against companies in the past. In fact, the Treasury Department in August announced sanctions against one of the telecom firms named Monday, Syriatel.
U.S. officials said the private company, Syria's largest mobile phone carrier, was controlled by an insider in the regime of the country's president, Bashar Assad.
But focusing on specific technologies used in repression is a novel approach, said Philip N. Howard, director of the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam at the University of Washington.
"There are other countries, perhaps China, Cuba or Russia, where technology firms are also state-controlled and may also be implicated in human rights abuses," Howard said. "It could open the door to other kinds of diplomatic actions."
Still, there are complexities to targeting technology in repressive countries such as Iran, he said.
"The tough policy choice would be to figure out how to have effective information technology sanctions on Iran that would cripple the infrastructure of the regime while still allowing civil society groups to use Facebook, Google or Twitter to get news or information about the world and get news and information to their family and friends," he said.
The administration's international cyberspace strategy released last year said U.S. officials "encourage people all over the world to use digital media ... and denounce those who harass, unfairly arrest, threaten or commit violent acts against the people who use these technologies."
The Internet and social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter played a pivotal role in the pro-democracy uprisings of last year's Arab Spring, which led to the toppling of repressive regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries.
U.S. officials and activists say the governments of Syria and Iran have used technology to prevent their regimes from falling.
In Syria, the Assad government has killed about 9,000 people as part of a yearlong crackdown on armed rebels, according to the United Nations. The Obama administration said the Syrian government had directed Syriatel, which controls 55% of that nation's cellphone market, to cut off network access in areas where the government planned attacks on rebels. The company also recorded mobile phone calls on the government's behalf, the administration said.
Datak Telecom, an Internet service provider in Iran, collaborated with the government there to monitor, track and target people who tried to get around the regime's blocking of Internet content, the administration said.
Datak also assisted in surveillance of Iranians who used a popular commercial email service, and it planned to expand the operation to potentially include millions of Iranian Internet users, according to the White House.
The administration also aimed the new sanctions at Syrian and Iranian government agencies and officials who directed the surveillance operations.
One person specifically named was Ali Mamluk, who the administration said oversaw a communications program by the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate that was directed at opposition groups.
Mamluk worked with Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security to provide the Syrian government with training in the use of Internet monitoring technology, the administration said. He also requested Iran's help with monitoring social networks, it said.
The Syrian General Intelligence Directorate has been implicated in serious human rights abuses, such as arbitrary arrests and the deaths of detainees, the administration said.