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 said Sunday.
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 made yet.
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 missile programs.
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 movement.
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 programs.
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 missile programs.
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.
Monday, March 8, 2010
U.S. Hopes Internet Exports Will Help Open Closed Societies