2014-01-16

Co.Labs

Could A Hashtag Bring Digital Justice To Sudan?

By pressuring the U.S. government, can the people of Sudan finally get online access to the things they need?



Sudan has an Internet problem. Thanks in part to U.S. sanctions, citizens of the war-torn country are very limited in what they can see and do online. Could a soon-to-be-launched social media campaign change that?

#SudanSanctions is a grassroots online campaign aimed at pressuring the U.S. government to ease its sanctions against Sudan, where those with Internet access--currently 21% of the population--are barred by the sanctions from making online purchases. Activists say the sanctions unfairly limit civilians and hamper innovation in the country.

Prior social activism from the Sudanese people have come in small doses, but "this coming campaign definitely represents the first concerted effort to harness media...to raise their voices for change and demonstrate how the sanctions need to be adjusted to reflect new digital realities," freelance writer Amanda Sperber told FastCoLabs via email.

A coalition of Sudanese activists are behind the campaign, which will include other hashtags like #techsanctions and #Sudan. Sometime over the next few days, a press conference with media outreach will be held to release a documentary-style video "with interviews from professors to female programmers talking about how the sanctions have impacted their work," explained Sperber. "Some American NGOs and think tanks who can't currently be named," she added, are working with the activists in getting the word out on "social media with hashtags, article sharing and the video."

The Sudan Sanctions Program, "which imposed a comprehensive trade embargo on Sudan and blocked the assets of the Government of Sudan," were imposed because of Sudan's implicated involvement in international terrorism and human rights violations. As a result, the Sudanese people cannot buy any products online--they haven't been able to since the sanctions were passed into law in 1997. That includes software updates, apps, anti-virus software, and online education classes. One Sudan University of Science and Technology student, Afnan Kheir, explains, "we don't have the luxury of Visa or MasterCard, which deprives us from many things not only IT related.” Without the option to pay for anything online, Sudan's tech sector is not advancing.

There is one exception to the trade embargo: gum arabic, a key ingredient in all sodas, including Coca-Cola. Sudan is the world's largest producer, making and distributing 70% to 80% of the world's gum arabic. The U.S. would never want to hinder Coca-Cola's performance, especially seeing as it has been the world's most valuable brand in previous years--Apple just beat them out of the top spot for the first time in 13 years.

Sudanese activist and tech worker Mohammed Hashim Kambal wrote to Tech President explaining that the Sudan Sanctions Programs are "true for the Sudanese regime but normal people ha[ve] nothing to do with that.”

Engineers, programmers, and developers are not the only ones afflicted either. Students and non-profit entities are constantly trying to find modes to move around around the sanctions, instead they oftentimes endure delays and several roadblocks nonetheless.

People are finally speaking out now within the country as well as outside, pleading for a U.S. mandate. Many people affected by the digital sanctions, like the once-censored Nuba Mountains Indiegogo campaign, are involved in the struggle. A campaign called "smart sanctions," endorsed by the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, aims to target the government instead of civilians.

New opportunities for Sudan's tech sector have only recently begun to emerge even with the U.S. regulations remaining in place. For example, the U.S.-based Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), which has 600 Sudan-Subsection members. They held their first ever Conference on Computing, Electrical & Electronics Engineering last year, that ended up attracting two American professors as keynote speakers.

A paper released in December of 2013 by the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, argued that a failure to lift the outdated sanctions is negatively impacting Sudan's population. The hopes for the #SudanSanctions campaign are to persuade the U.S. government to do just that: to lift the antiquated bans that are squashing the Sudanese population's progress into the digital age.

[H/T: Tech President]

[Image: Flickr user Giuseppe Milo]