But many of the same measures also have blocked access to online services and software — including e-mail, blogging platforms and security tools that prevent user activity from being traced — that could be helpful to opposition movements, experts say.
“We are fighting on two sides: the side of the regime and the side of the sanctions,” said Dlshad Othman, a Syrian activist who works with opposition groups across the region.
The concern most frequently raised by activists and U.S.-based nonprofits that support them is the difficulty of getting anti-tracking software, which usually is free of charge, into the hands of those on the ground. Othman said U.S. sanctions have made it much harder and more time-consuming to get anti-surveillance tools installed on activists’ phones and computers.
“And sometimes we’re not successful,” he added. “So people take risks, and they are filming and uploading pictures without protection, so the regime can easily arrest them or even kill them.”
The Obama administration has granted exemptions from trade restrictions with Syria and Iran to allow U.S. tech firms to make their goods and services available to customers in those countries. But the sheer complexity of the sanctions — and the steep fines for violating them — have in many cases kept U.S. firms from seeking clarification or attempting to obtain export licenses.
Even when sanctions are relaxed, problems can persist. In 2011, for instance, the Treasury Department granted an exemption allowing Google and others to offer free Web-browsing software in Iran, but the same exemption was made for Syria only this summer.
“The thing about the sanction effort is that . . . they’ve actually done more harm than good,” said Jillian C. York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a rights group that was among the signatories to an open letter this summer that called on large Internet companies to apply for export licenses.
Concerns about the unintended consequences of the sanctions have prompted the administration to review current policy in Syria, officials said Tuesday. Among the possible changes: a presidential order clarifying what software and services could be provided to the country.
A long, complex process
U.S. officials said they have already issued general licenses to allow the export of “free, mass-market personal communications software and services” to Syria and Iran. They have also issued specific guidance on what is permitted and what is not.
Companies, officials note, have been given the opportunity to apply for licences that would exempt them from sanctions.