The following was originally posted on The Hill’s Congress Blog.
Sadly, things are not getting better for the people of Syria – just this past weekend residents of Homs experienced some of the worst violence since the Syrian government began attacking civilian protesters nearly one year ago. If there is good news, it is that recent actions by President Barack Obama and the Senate that demonstrate the United States’ willingness to hold perpetrators like Bashar al-Assad – as well as countries and corporations that enable their brutal actions – accountable.
President Obama strongly condemned the Syrian government’s latest assaults against the people of Homs, and his Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice issued a scathing criticism of China and Russia after the two nations vetoed a U.S.-led Security Council resolution Saturday that would have backed a transition to democracy in Syria and sent a strong unified message to Assad. The Senate Banking Committee – with much less notice but deserving equal praise – advanced a bill last week that would impose tougher sanctions on Assad’s regime and take important steps to prevent technology companies from assisting and profiting from the Syrian government.
The international community has in past months mounted pressure on Syria’s economy through sanctions of the important oil sector. Yet, U.S. and European high-tech firms continued to actively and knowingly profit by doing business with Assad. Media exposure and name-and-shame public pressure on companies whose surveillance technology is used by Assad’s security forces – including AreA, NetApp and Blue Coat – led to some voluntary actions. Similarly, exposure of over a dozen international webhosting companies working with the Syrian government by a Canadian organization Citizen Lab released a report that shamed several of these companies into either suspending their web hosting services or to issuing justifications for their actions.
This exposure of tech sector actors pointed out a critical gap in current international sanctions and raised the question: What responsibility do information and communications technology companies have to ensure they are not directly or indirectly supporting regimes sanctioned by the U.S. government and the international community?
The Senate Banking Committee included language in its Iran sanctions bill that prohibits the sale to Syria of technology that can be used for censorship or to otherwise support human rights abuses by the Assad government. This represents a significant step by identifying the need for technology companies to scrutinize their business dealings and demanding corporate accountability.
The provisions in this new bill won’t immediately end the violence against Syrian civilians, but in taking this on, Senators are setting a precedent by establishing due diligence standards that will make it much more difficult for tech firms operating in conflict zones or with abusive regimes to be complicit in the oppression of human rights.
Had this legislation been in place last year, companies such as NetApp and Blue Coat would have been subject to much stronger pressure than the court of public opinion alone can impose. Tech companies that continue to sit on the fence about their role in supporting the Syrian government may no longer have a choice in the matter. Congress should immediately pass this bill and give the U.S. government the mandate to scrutinize these companies’ relationships and judge the extent to which they support violence against innocent civilians in Syria.