WASHINGTON: The US President, Barack Obama, has signed an executive order targeting people and entities who use technology to help authoritarian regimes in Iran and Syria suppress their people.
''Technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to oppress them,'' Mr Obama said at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
The internet and social media helped fuel last year's Arab Spring but now the Obama administration wants to prevent companies using the same technology to help Syria and Iran target dissidents.
Taking aim at what it called ''digital guns for hire'', the administration unveiled new sanctions against telecommunication companies in those countries, as well as the governments themselves, for recording mobile calls, monitoring internet traffic and employing other technological tools to ''facilitate grave human rights abuses''.
The sanctions freeze any assets or property in the US controlled by the companies or the Syrian and Iranian governments. The sanctions also ban government officials or company executives implicated in using technology to ''track and target citizens for violence'' from obtaining visas to enter the US
''There are other countries, perhaps China, Cuba or Russia, where technology firms are also state-controlled and may also be implicated in human rights abuses,'' the director of the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam at the University of Washington, Philip Howard, said. ''It could open the door to other kinds of diplomatic actions.''
Mr Obama was introduced at the museum by Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel. Mr Obama told Mr Wiesel: ''You show us the way. If you cannot give up, if you can believe, then we can believe.''
The President said the White House's new ''atrocities prevention board'' was to meet for the first time this week. He said its aim was to better prevent and respond to mass atrocities and war crimes. ''Too often the world has failed to stop the massacre of innocents on a massive scale,'' the President said.
The US faces calls to orchestrate an international solution to the deadly crackdown in Syria. ''National sovereignty is never a licence to slaughter your people,'' Mr Obama said.
Nearly 60 people have been killed in Syria this week, a monitoring group says.
''Thirty-one civilians were killed by gunfire from government forces in the neighbourhood of Arbaeen in the the city of Hama,'' the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday.
In the executive order Mr Obama said the ''malign use of technology'' was facilitating human rights abuses in Iran and Syria and was a threat to the national security of the US.
While social media and other technology have been cited as aiding rebellions in countries including Libya and Egypt, other regimes including Bahrain, Syria and Iran have used technology to track dissidents.
Much of the technology used by oppressive regimes was supplied by US companies. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that McAfee, part of the technology company Intel, had provided content-filtering software used in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
The White House said the executive order ''authorises sanctions and visa bans against those who commit or facilitate grave human rights abuses via information technology … related to Syrian and Iranian regime brutality''.
''This tool allows us to sanction not just those oppressive governments but the companies that enable them with technology they use for oppression, and the digital guns for hire who create or operate systems used to monitor, track, and target citizens,'' the White House said.
Los Angeles Times, Guardian News & Media