Will A New Policy Help Iranian Citizens Lift the "Electronic Curtain"?

In the past, it’s been difficult for Iranian activists to access critical communications tools – but not because of the Iranian regime. Instead, it was due (at least in part) to confusing sanctions regulations which made it legally and politically risky for American companies to export their products. The good news: The U.S. government decided to do something about those convoluted regulations. Last week, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) took major steps to make more communications tools available to the Iranian people and assuage the fears of companies.

On May 30, the office issued a new general license authorizing the export of certain software, services, and hardware by U.S. companies that can be used for personal communications.

At the Open Technology Institute, we’ve been working for months to raise awareness about Iran’s repressive censorship and surveillance regime and the U.S. technology which could help dissidents and ordinary citizens communicate. In our research, we found that many critical tools, from Yahoo! messenger to free antivirus software and security updates, were blocked in Iran by the companies that create them out of fear of violating sanctions. That’s why we’re pleased that General License D, which goes into effect immediately, explicitly makes it legal for U.S. companies to export a variety of personal communications technologies that can help Iranian citizens communicate more safely and securely. The list of authorized technology includes mobile phones, laptops and personal computers, online app stores, anti-virus software, and anti-censorship and surveillance tools.

The day before the US announcement, Canada made a similar move, exempting information and communications tools from new restrictions it added last week. Multilateral efforts to make sanctions policies more targeted strengthen them. If the EU and other countries follow suit, it could represent a powerful new norm.

The new directive comes at a critical time. With Iran’s June 14 election approaching, the government in Tehran has been fortifying its so-called “electronic curtain.”  That means it’s slowing connection speeds, blocking access to common circumvention tools, and increasing monitoring of social networks. In 2009, many Iranians used communications technology to organize and communicate as they challenged the results of the election. This time, the government is preparing in advance for any opposition by increasing surveillance and strengthening its filtering regime now. These actions make the availability of communications tools even more vital to the work of human rights activists and dissidents. Without access to many American-made products, Iranians can be forced to rely on less secure tools that make them more vulnerable to malware and hacking. It’s not a silver bullet, but the new U.S. policy is an important first step. We won’t know the full impact of the policy until we see how American companies use the license, and what counter measures the Iranian government takes to stop its citizens from accessing these tools.

But for the time being, the latest news from the U.S. government clears a number of the regulatory hurdles that stood in the way. Now it’s up to the companies to make their products available in Iran in support of free expression and individuals’ ability to exercise human rights online.

This post originally appeared on In The Tank, a blog from the New America Foundation.

Authors:

Tim Maurer was the Director of the Global Cybersecurity Norms and Resilience Project and Head of Research of New America’s Cybersecurity Initiative.

Danielle Kehl is a fellow at New America's Open Technology Institute, where she researches and writes about technology policy issues.