Recently, I learned from Joshua Landis’ Syria Comment, my main source for news and analysis concerning Lebanon’s eastern neighbor, that Google has blocked the use of its new web browser, Chrome, in Syria.

A quick Google search turned up a post by Syrian blogger Yaser Sadeq with an account of his abortive attempt to take the new browser for a spin, and another by Feras Allaou that chronicled his own unsuccessful attempts to download Google applications.

After getting error messages while trying to download Google Talk, Gmail Notifier, and Chrome, Allaou wrote that he “figured out 100% that Google censored Syria from taking advantage of their programs.”

It seems like a strange move for a company that has focused so intently on the Middle Eastern and North African markets, with versions of Knol, Blogger, iGoogle, Docs, and, most recently, Chat in Arabic. But he was right.

Remarkably, the block wasn’t the work of the Syrian government — which has banned numerous sites in the past, including Facebook, Skype, and several blogging platforms — but that of Google itself. According to a Google spokesperson, in order for the company to abide by U.S. export controls and economic sanctions, “we are unable to permit the download of Google Chrome in Cuba, Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Sudan.”

It’s not the first time that Google has taken such action. Last year, the company justified restricting access to Google Earth in Sudan with practically the same statement.

Nor is Google alone. The Register reported in November 2007 that Yahoo and Microsoft removed Iran from the drop-down list that lets users choose their country of origin when signing up for web mail. Yahoo also referred to U.S. law in explaining its decision: “Because the United States restricts U.S. businesses from conducting business in certain countries, Yahoo also ensured that these countries do not appear in the drop-down menu.”

Getting Around the Blocks

It seems silly to block the download of free and widely available software like Chrome, but we can’t blame companies for trying to comply with the law. However, information travels fluidly on the Net, so the law has a hard time keeping up. And that’s troubling, because the U.S. can be seen as inhibiting access to information or possibly even stifling free speech in the very countries whose censorship and repression it condemns.

A recent overview of U.S. export controls and economic sanctions prepared by the Washington, D.C. technology law firm Harris, Wiltshire, & Grannis warns that the law now affects “a much wider range of international transactions” than it did a decade ago. “Moreover, these measures reach activities that are either completely domestic or unlikely to be viewed as having an international aspect,” the report says.
And some of these measures, at least in the case of the search engines, don’t really appear to work.

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Case in point: Although Yahoo removed Iran from the drop-down list, Iranians were still using Yahoo services, according to Kourosh Ziabari, an Iranian journalist and blogger who wrote about the issue for the citizen journalism site OhMyNews.

“[Iranians are using] Yahoo services, downloading new versions of Messenger, using the different web site parts but not finding the name of their country in the sign-up list,” Ziabari wrote. “In fact, if an Iranian user wanted to sign up for a new account in Yahoo mail, he should have selected the name of the other countries, and then he would proceed.”

Ziabari and another blogger and student, Mohammad Tavakoli, organized an online campaign to protest the move by Yahoo to remove their country from the drop-down menu, which they considered “a mental war instead of a restriction of services” and an affront to their country’s “15,000 years of history.” The campaign consisted, ironically, of a Google bomb, a site whose metadata keywords don’t actually describe the content and drive searchers looking for one site elsewhere — in Ziabari’s case to Hello Yahoo Mail. The site still shows up on the first page of Google search results for yahoo mail.

After I queried another Iranian blogger, Hamid Tehrani, who edits the Iran section for Global Voices, I found out that Chrome is blocked, along with other Google downloads, in Iran. But it’s relatively easy for Iranian users to get around this obstacle. Ziabari told me in an email (from his Gmail account) that he is still able to access Google services by using a proxy.

“Currently, we are using all of the search engines and portals without any restriction, using the latest versions of Google Earth, Chrome, GTalk and any other downloadable product,” he said. In addition to helping users get around government filtering and censorship, proxies and anonymizers can also fool Google’s servers into thinking that the downloads were going elsewhere rather than to users in Iran.

Advertising Despite Blocks

Another curious aspect of this is that though Google blocks Syrians and Iranians from accessing these programs, it still serves them ads. According to Sadeq, Google AdWords ads appear on websites and blogs in Syria just as they do elsewhere. Sadeq double-checked that this was the case and that clicking through didn’t pose any problems. “Moreover,” he said, “I don’t think there is a problem in setting up an [AdSense] account for one’s blog/website (I tried it once in my blog).”

How did he set up the AdSense account? When asked what country he was from, he simply chose Lebanon because Syria wasn’t an option. The account was easily set up that way.

Export Administration Regulations do restrict the dissemination of software that could, say, help build weapons, but make exceptions for “publicly available” programs, “the idea being that people are unlikely to disseminate free of charge the really significant technology,” according to the Harris Wiltshire & Grannis review. But review author Cecil Hunt explains: “For Iran and Syria, the availability of this exception is likely to be moot, due to the pervasive embargo administered by [the Office of Foreign Asset Controls] OFAC.” OFAC administers U.S. trade sanctions programs.

A 2003 OFAC ruling (PDF file) concerning Internet connectivity in Iran supports this conclusion. Even though OFAC found that “the provision by U.S. persons of international Internet connectivity services to civilian customers in Iran can be authorized on a case-by-case basis…provided that the main purpose is to benefit the people of Iran through increased access to information,” it also held that U.S. software, whether or not it originates in the U.S., cannot be exported “directly or indirectly” to Iran by U.S. citizens.

In a different 2003 ruling on posting information from Iran, OFAC found that “the listing of basic information on a website in a uniform format [like an ad] for companies around the world, including Iran, by a U.S. person, is not prohibited.” However, it also said that providing marketing services, like creating an AdWords account, would be prohibited.

What Do the Blocks Accomplish?

So what if Syrians and Iranians can’t use Chrome? There are a lot of other browsers and software out there not subject to U.S. law.

In an email, Sadeq, who says he’s downloaded Firefox and Adobe software with no problem, offered an answer in two parts.

First, he expressed disappointment in Google, which had “earned a reputation here and elsewhere to be the good guys,” he said. “They gave the impression that they depart from the big corporation mentality and attitude, which gave them credit in this part of the world. For that reason you don’t hear of someone boycotting a Google service or product.”

And then he gets to the heart of the matter, noting that the sanctions don’t really do what they are intended to do.

“Those sanctions have no impact whatsoever on our government except denying the Syrian people much needed hardware and products (and lately online services) that would help us improve our economy and get out of the yoke of economic misery that the regime uses to stay in power,” he said. “So in a way they [Google and the U.S.] are helping the people they passed these sanctions against.”

Jessica Dheere is a freelance journalist and media consultant in Beirut. She directs the Social Media Exchange, which provides training to civil society actors in the strategic use of social media for social change, and also teaches workshops in online and citizen journalism in the Journalism Training Program at the American University of Beirut.