U.S. Hopes Exports Will Help Open Closed Societies
By MARK LANDLER
Published: March 7, 2010
WASHINGTON — Seeking to exploit the Internet's potential for prying open
closed societies, the Obama administration will permit technology
companies to export online services like instant messaging, chat and
photo sharing to Iran, Cuba and Sudan, a senior administration official
On Monday, he said, the Treasury Department will issue a general license
for the export of free personal Internet services and software geared
toward the populations in all three countries, allowing Microsoft, Yahoo
and other providers to get around strict export restrictions.
The companies had resisted offering such services for fear of violating
existing sanctions. But there have been growing calls in Congress and
elsewhere to lift the restrictions, particularly after the postelection
protests in Iran illustrated the power of Internet-based services like
Facebook and Twitter.
"The more people have access to a range of Internet technology and
services, the harder it's going to be for the Iranian government to
clamp down on their speech and free expression," said the official, who
spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement had not been
The decision, which had been expected, underscores the complexity of
dealing with politically repressive governments in the digital age: even
as the Obama administration is opening up trade in Internet services to
Iran, it is shaping harsh new sanctions that would crack down on Iranian
access to financing and technology that could help Iran's nuclear and
Critics have said these sanctions are leaky and ineffective, and some
say it makes more sense to spread digital technology, which makes it
harder for governments to restrict the flow of information within
societies, and to prevent their people from contact with the outside world.
The Treasury Department's action follows a recommendation by the State
Department in mid-December that the Office of Foreign Assets Control,
which is run by the Treasury, authorize the downloading of "free
mass-market software" in Iran by Microsoft, Google and other companies.
In a speech in January, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
declared that Internet freedom had become a fundamental principle of
American foreign policy. "Viral videos and blog posts are becoming the
samizdat of our day," she said, referring to censored publications that
were passed around in Soviet-era Russia and helped fuel the dissident
While Iran is the prime target of the Treasury's action, it has
implications for Sudan and Cuba, where the administration is also
seeking to open more channels of communication to the outside world. Two
other blacklisted countries, North Korea and Syria, are not affected by
the decision because their sanctions do not currently rule out the
export of Internet services.
In the chaotic days after the June election in Iran, the State
Department asked Twitter to put off maintenance of its global network,
which would have cut off service to Iranians using it to swap
information and tell the world about antigovernment protests. The
administration's move will not deprive the Iranian authorities of the
ability to clamp down on the Internet, as happened in February, when
service was constricted so heavily that Iranians had difficulty
accessing Gmail accounts and organizing protests before the 31st
anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. But by offering Iranians more
options, the official said, it will force the authorities in Iran to
plug more holes.
"We want to make sure the information flows," he said. "It will
obviously have political implications in a range of ways."
The administration's blanket waiver does not apply to encryption and
other software that makes it harder for the authorities to track
people's Internet activity. That category of technology does not fall
within the mass-market services that can be downloaded free from the
Internet, he said.
But the official said the Treasury would grant licenses to such
providers on a case-by-case basis, and would generally look favorably on
them. One such service, known as Haystack, is awaiting a waiver from the
State Department, and is subsequently likely to obtain a Treasury license.
Developed by the Censorship Research Center, a San Francisco-based
nonprofit organization, Haystack uses mathematical formulas to disguise
a user's Internet traffic from official censors.
In December, Representative James Moran, Democrat of Virginia,
introduced a bill in the House that would "support the democratic
aspirations of the Iranian people by enhancing their ability to access
the Internet and communications services." It also calls for the United
States to give tools to Iranians to help circumvent government
restrictions on the Internet.
The State Department says it is working in 40 countries to help people
get around these barriers. But critics said it had moved slowly in
spending $15 million appropriated by Congress in 2008 to support these
Advocates of one service, Global Internet Freedom Consortium, complain
that it has not received financing because it is linked to Falun Gong, a
sect condemned by the Chinese government as a cult.
The administration's main focus on Iran these days is marshaling support
at the United Nations Security Council for a tough new sanctions
resolution, aimed particularly at the Islamic Revolutionary Guards
Corps. Last month, the Treasury Department froze the assets of four
construction firms linked to the guard, which runs Iran's nuclear and
While the Internet decision would seem at odds with more sanctions "at
some meta-level," the official said, he described it as part of an
overall strategy to force the Iranian government to alter its behavior.
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