Facilitating Internet Freedom in Iran

 

This morning, in a statement marking Nowruz, President Barack Obama said:

“From Facebook to Twitter - from cell phones to the Internet - our people use the same tools to talk to one another, and to enrich our lives. Yet increasingly, the Iranian people are denied the basic freedom to access the information that they want.  Instead, the Iranian government jams satellite signals to shut down television and radio broadcasts. It censors the Internet to control what the Iranian people can see and say.  The regime monitors computers and cell phones for the sole purpose of protecting its own power. And in recent weeks, Internet restrictions have become so severe that Iranians cannot communicate freely with their loved ones within Iran, or beyond its borders. Technologies that should empower citizens are being used to repress them. Because of the actions of the Iranian regime, an electronic curtain has fallen around Iran - a barrier that stops the free flow of information and ideas into the country, and denies the rest of the world the benefit of interacting with the Iranian people, who have so much to offer. I want the Iranian people to know that America seeks a dialogue to hear your views and understand your aspirations.”

The President urged Iranian citizens to visit the United States’ Virtual Embassy launched in December 2011 (visit the Virtual Embassy in English and Persian), and announced new interpretive guidance and a statement of licensing policy from the Treasury Department on internet freedom in Iran: 

The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) today issued guidance and licensing information to further support the free flow of information to citizens of Iran – a freedom the Iranian regime has consistently denied to its people. It is essential that people have the freedom to seek, receive and impart information through a variety of mediums, including the Internet. These freedoms empower individuals to make informed decisions about the world around them, to express their concerns and aspirations, and to hold their government accountable for its actions. To that end, the United States has consistently defended the right of people around the world to enjoy fundamental freedoms, such as the freedom of expression, assembly and association both offline and online. By jamming satellites and censoring the Internet, the Iranian regime has erected an electronic curtain that prevents the Iranian people from communicating with the outside world and with each other.

Today, OFAC issued Interpretive Guidance regarding the scope of this authorization. OFAC has determined that the categories of services and software listed below fall within the scope of services incident to the exchange of personal communications over the Internet or software necessary to enable such services, as described in section 560.540 of the ITR.

  • Personal Communications (e.g., Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk, Microsoft Live, Skype (non-fee based))
  • Updates to Personal Communications Software
  • Personal Data Storage (e.g., Dropbox)
  • Browsers/Updates (e.g., Google Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer)
  • Plug-ins (e.g., Flashplayer, Shockwave, Java)
  • Document Readers (e.g., Acrobat Readers)
  • Free Mobile Apps Related to Personal Communications
  • RSS Feed Readers and Aggregators (e.g., Google Feed Burner).

In addition, OFAC is clarifying its existing Statement of Licensing Policy (“SLP”) that establishes a favorable licensing policy through which U.S. persons can request OFAC approval to export to Iran certain services and software not covered by section 560.540 of the ITR that directly benefit the Iranian people. This SLP applies to services and software such as web hosting, online advertising, fee-based mobile apps, and fee-based Internet communication services.

In March 2010, Treasury amended the Iranian Transactions Regulations, Sudanese Sanctions Regulations, and Cuban Assets Control Regulations to ensure that individuals in these countries can exercise their universal right to free speech and information to the greatest extent possible. The amendments add general licenses authorizing the exportation of certain personal Internet-based communications services – such as instant messaging, chat and email, and social networking – to Iran, Sudan and Cuba.  The amendments also permit the exportation of related software to Iran and Sudan.   

As President Obama said in his statement, “The United States will continue to draw attention to the electronic curtain that is cutting the Iranian people off from the world.  And we hope that others will join us in advancing a basic freedom for the Iranian people: the freedom to connect with one another, and with their fellow human beings.”

Watch the President’s statement and read a White House blog post and Treasury fact sheet on the guidance (also available in Persian at the Virtual Embassy here and here).

Erika Gudmundson is New Media Specialist at the Department of the Treasury
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