For Free Expression in Iran, the U.S. Can Act to Keep the Internet On

Iran’s parliamentary “elections” on Feb. 21 will be neither free nor fair. Thousands of candidates have been disqualified, and there have been calls from Iran’s civil society leaders and others to boycott the process entirely.

But there’s another reason to keep an eye on this election. The Iranian government has throttled – slowed — the flow of information online for users around elections in the past, and this one is unlikely to be an exception. The regime’s willingness and capacity to wage such cyber – as well as physical – crackdowns was evident in November, when it shut off the internet for its population of 81 million people to quell nationwide protests, and then killed and jailed thousands of protesters under cover of online darkness.

Since then, the election boycott movement has gained support, and regional tensions have increased. Authorities may try even more draconian measures to restrict internet freedoms around the election, including ramping up the implementation of the long-planned national intranet, which would give them full control over what sites and content Iranian users can access. This could be more harmful than a complete shutdown, because it would force Iranians onto platforms the regime controls, thus exposing them to government surveillance and monitoring.

What can be done? While the Trump administration has been criticized for its hard-line policies on Iran, the United States has the power to limit or stop efforts to cut off Iranians from the global online world. The U.S. can do this by allowing American companies to provide technology services and platforms to the Iranian people without fear of violating sanctions.

The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy towards Iran has had unintentional consequences. Chief among them is that intensifying pressure around sanctions compliance has caused leading U.S. technology companies to purge Iranian users from their platforms wholesale. These include communication platforms such as Slack and Github, and cloud computing platforms such as Amazon Web Services, DigitalOcean, and Google Cloud. Companies purge users with no prior warning and without allowing users to backup and export their data.

In previous years, when authorities tried to block censorship circumvention tools, as they are likely to do during the election, technology teams outside Iran could still find ways to correspond with activists inside. Today, because of the purge of users from major U.S.-based platforms, it is difficult for even the most tech-savvy Iranian activists to reach the outside world.

These purges have also given authorities the perfect opportunity to force the Iranian technology community to move its infrastructure to domestic data centers, giving authorities full physical control and jurisdiction over every server and byte of data. Iranian users worried about the safety of their data were left with no choice.

U.S. technology companies claim they would be happy to provide services to Iranian users but that sanctions bar them from doing so. This is only partly true. Sanctions do prohibit provision of some services. But technology companies are cutting off more than they need to, because they fear litigation and U.S. government fines. The administration can help ease these fears by providing express guidance on what technology sanctions prohibit and permit.

The administration can also help expand existing sanctions exemptions. General License D1, which provides exemptions to technology sanctions for personal use, is ineffective in helping Iranian users access information. The language of the license is vague and has not kept pace with new technologies, such as cloud computing platforms essential for users to run censorship circumvention tools.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bipartisan resolution calling for an expansion of General License D1. With this bipartisan support, the Treasury Department should revisit the language of General License D1 to help the Iranian people access information freely. 

There are many human rights issues in Iran that require attention. But should Iran be permitted to isolate the Iranian people from the global internet and conduct mass surveillance of human rights defenders and political dissidents, all other efforts at supporting human rights and democracy will be for naught. The Trump administration has voiced support for the Iranian people to freely assemble, protest, and express themselves—it also holds the tools to help stave off a total internet blackout. It should act, before it’s too late.

IMAGE: A man uses a smartphone while speaking with another riding a motorcycle along the side of a street in the Iranian capital Tehran in November 2019. Iranians were struggling to adjust to life offline almost one week into a near-total internet blackout imposed amid violent demonstrations that forced some to resort to old ways to get by. (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Nima Fatemi

Founding Director of Kandoo, a nonprofit focused on cybersecurity for marginalized groups. Follow him on Twitter (@mrphs)

Gissou Nia

Human rights lawyer and nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. Follow her on Twitter (@GissouNia)