This post was co-authored by independent researcher Collin Anderson.
In recent weeks, we’ve heard reports that internet users in Crimea and elsewhere in the region are increasingly being denied communications services based on their location. These restrictions are product of a comprehensive sanctions regime by the United States that was enacted in December against the Crimea as a result of the growing conflict in the region. Access joined EFF, Global Voices Advocacy, New America’s Open Technology Institute, and Ferrari & Associates, P.C. in a letter calling for the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC)—the agency charged with enforcing the sanctions—to issue a general license that would protect internet users.
The Crimea sanctions require American technology firms, including Google, to stop updating software, to terminate small business applications, to shut down web hosting accounts, and to deny other services to users they believe are located in the affected region. Journalists, human rights defenders, and ordinary people living in Crimea – or even just traveling there – depend on a variety of information services, software, and hardware that are covered by these sanctions. The sanctions add barriers for information technology, drastically impacting free expression and privacy, and only contribute to the isolation and instability in the region. Not only are basic personal communications tools such as email and cryptography software impacted, but Google has stopped updating its popular Chrome browser in the region. This means that computer security is threatened by the blocking.
This is not the first time United States sanctions regulations have prevented users from securely accessing the global Internet. However, in recent years, the Department of Treasury and the Department of Commerce has carved out exceptions for internet tools and services for personal communications technology and consumer communications devices. Access has long supported such authorizations, including those in Cuba and Iran.
Without urgent action from OFAC, these restrictions are likely to foreshadow greater impediments on the free flow of information to Crimea, and make the removal of these sanctions policies more difficult in the future. Imposing barriers on access to American platforms will only push users into services provided by Russian companies. As we have seen from the start of the conflict, these services are highly controlled by Russian authorities and have actively stifled independent channels of information through aggressive censorship and surveillance. That’s not in the interest of Internet users or international human rights, and it’s not the intent of the policies. OFAC should act immediately to protect the free flow of information by issuing a general license authorizing the provision of services, software, and hardware incident to personal communication over the internet in Crimea.
photo credit: Artem Svetlov