U.S. Wants Microsoft, Google to End Message Bans in Iran, Cuba
Mark Drajem Mark Drajem – Thu Oct 29, 12:00 am ET
Oct. 29 (Bloomberg) — The Treasury Department says it wants companies
such as Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc. to resume instant messaging
services in countries including Cuba and Iran that remain under U.S.
Microsoft and Google cut off the use of instant messages by citizens of
Iran, Syria, Cuba and Sudan, saying U.S. regulations prohibit the
required downloads. Now the Treasury Department is saying the online
communications foster democracy and should be restored.
â€œEnsuring the flow and access to information available through the
Internet and similar public sources is consistent with the policy
interests of the United States,â€
The company-imposed blackouts show how U.S. trade restrictions can
conflict with diplomatic goals, said James Lewis, an analyst at the
Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"We want people to be able to communicate," Lewis, who administered U.S.
export control rules in the 1990s, said in an interview. "But in the
normal course of business this stuff is on autopilot. The sanctions
system rolls on and generates an answer that is no."
The U.S. began an "interagency effort" to make sure electronic
communication is available in nations facing sanctions "to the extent
permitted by current U.S. law," Szubin said in the letter to Sarah
Stephens, executive director of the Washington-based Center for
Democracy in the Americas.
The conflict is over how to interpret laws that limit trade with
countries whose policies the U.S. opposes. In addition to imposing
general sanctions, the U.S. restricts exports of civilian technology
that could have military applications.
Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft, the world's largest software maker,
ended access to Windows Live Messenger, its instant-messaging
application, last year to meet its "obligations to not do business with
markets on the U.S. sanctions list," spokeswoman Kate McGillem said in
The company lets citizens of those nations use its Hotmail e-mail and
Live Spaces, a blogging service. Those don't require downloaded software.
Google, based in Mountain View, California, doesn't permit the download
of Google Talk, its instant messaging and voice chat service, or of
Google Earth, Google Desktop and other services. It has a "longstanding
practice" of using a filtering system to block access to those services
from portals in Iran and the other nations under sanctions, spokesman
Scott Rubin said in an e-mail.
The prohibitions on access in sanctioned nations remain in effect,
according to the companies. Marti Adams, a Treasury spokesman, wouldn't
comment, and declined to grant an interview with Szubin.
The Obama administration said in April that it was easing sanctions on
Cuba, partly by letting companies such as AT&T Inc. get licenses to
operate television, mobile-phone or satellite- radio services in the
"With that in mind, we are deeply concerned that instant messaging
services for Cubans and persons living on other countries under
sanctions by the U.S. have been discontinued," Stephens of the Center
for Democracy wrote in a May 29 letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy
Web sites, blogs and online services such as Twitter have been used by
anti-government groups to promote their causes and organize protests.
China and Iran sought to block Internet access during unrest this year.
After the disputed presidential election in Iran on June 12, opposition
organizers used Twitter Inc.'s messaging to organize street protests.
The State Department intervened to dissuade Twitter from shutting down
for a planned upgrade, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"We called and said, 'Please don't shut down,' because this is a major
communications loop for people on the streets," Clinton said in a forum
at George Washington University in Washington on Oct. 6.
Closely held Twitter is a social networking site that lets users send
"tweets," messages of no more than 140 characters that are open to the
public unless the writer limits readers to selected "followers." Jenna
Sampson, a spokeswoman for San Francisco-based Twitter, didn't respond
to e-mailed questions.
Instant messaging, e-mail and other private communications tools are
more effective than Twitter alone for democratic activists in countries
such as Iran, said Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at Georgetown University's
School of Foreign Service in Washington.
"When you do have an event like in Iran you want all the channels in
place, so that people can communicate quickly," Morozov, who is writing
a book about the impact of the Internet on global politics, said in an
The risk to companies that they will run afoul of U.S. sanctions is
real, said Morozov. Doing business in Iran or Syria "is loss-making, so
why should they bother?" he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Drajem in Washington at
U.S. Wants Microsoft, Google to End Message Bans in Iran, Cuba – Yahoo!
News (29 October 2009)