The US Department of the Treasury announced last week that it is lifting sanctions against Iran that have prevented the export and provision of software, hardware, and communications services to the country. The Treasury has issued a General License (PDF) that permits US companies and citizens to provide:
- "fee-based services* incident to the exchange of personal communications over the Internet, such as instant messaging, chat and email, social networking, sharing of photos and movies, web browsing, and blogging";
- "consumer-grade Intemet connectivity services and the provision, sale, or leasing of capacity on telecommunications transmission facilities (such as satellite or terrestrial network connectivity) incident to personal communications";
- related software and hardware; and
- Internet connectivity services and related satellite/network capacity.
The move, which came just two weeks before Iran's presidential election, has been described as part of the Obama administration's attempt to "thwart censorship" in Iran, this time by helping provide access to technology that may help Iranians evade online information controls and avoid hacking. In the lead-up to the election, both activists and Internet users have experienced government interference. According to the Treasury press release, the new General License "aims to empower the Iranian people as their government intensifies its efforts to stifle their access to information."
Iranian activist groups have been receptive, saying that the sanctions were ultimately more damaging to individual Internet users than to the Iranian government. Writing for Slate, Danielle Kehl and Tim Maurer point out that under the previous ban, many technologies companies opted not to operate at all in Iran, fearing that they might unintentionally run afoul of the law. Samsung, Nokia, and Apple have all refused to provide access to some or all of their products in Iran or even, in Apple's case, to an Iranian citizen living in the United States. Iranian human rights activist Ali Akbar Musavi Khoeni called for "clear guidelines and guarantees" for companies operating under the new regulations in order to ensure that the lifting of the sanctions has the best possible effect for Iranian citizens.
*Note: free, publicly available services and software are regulated under 31 C.F.R. § 560.540, which authorizes the provision of online personal communications services (instant messaging, blogging, social networking, etc.) to people in Iran.