A phone screen dramatizing Internet shutdown in Iran amid violent repression of protests in 2022

US Codifies Sanctions Exemption to Help Iranians Access Internet

Saturday, 05/18/2024

The Biden administration has amended federal regulations to exempt internet communications services from Iran sanctions, allowing Iranians to access certain American software, hardware and services.

The existing ‘sanctions waiver’ was granted by the US Treasury in September 2022, as thousands across Iran took to the streets following the death in custody of the 22-year old Mahsa Amini, who had been detained for improper hijab.

On Friday, that waiver was codified and entered federal regulations, according to a notice published on the Federal Register. The new rule incorporates “a general license relating to the export, reexport, and provision of certain services, software, and hardware incident to communications over the internet,” the official summary of the document reads.

This would be good news for many Iranians, activists, in particular, who for many years have been stuck between a rock and a hard place –with US sanctions often aggravating the agony of internet users struggling to find a way around the regime’s censorship.

“This should give compliance teams at big tech companies more assurances to finally open up services such as Google Cloud Platform for hosting circumvention tools for Iran,” Mahsa Alimardani, an Internet researcher at Oxford University, posted on X.

Tech giants such as Google and Amazon are known to have been restricting the use of their cloud services and platforms for hosting tools that could help users in Iran to circumvent the government's draconian Internet censorship.

Advocates of free Internet, as well as technologists who want to provide circumvention tools to Iranian users, have criticized ‘blind’ US sanctions that they say harm ordinary people more than they deny technology to the sanctioned government. They now hope that the ‘waiver’ being codified into federal regulations would pave the way for the tech companies to provide services to Iranians that they until now refused.

“This codification is a reminder to technology companies that they bear the responsibility to ensure their platforms remain accessible to Iranian civil society in the face of the Islamic Republic’s digital repression,” freedom of expression campaigners Article 19 said in a statement published on their website.

US administrations –at least since the 2009 protests in Iran– have consistently underlined the importance of keeping ordinary Iranians ‘connected’ to the outside world. In recent years, the US Treasury has issued several licenses to exempt certain internet communications services from its Iran sanctions.

It remains to be seen whether the latest move –and the codification of the exemptions– is enough to convince tech companies to offer their service to Iranians inside Iran.

In 2022, amid the most widespread protests in the 45-year history of the Islamic Republic, Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, was asked if he’d make Starlink internet services available to the people of Iran. In response, he said his company would apply for an exemption from the US treasury –which in turn exempted some satellite internet equipment from sanctions.

In December 2022, the Wall Street Journal reported that Starlink equipment was being smuggled into Iran. Roughly the same time, Google announced that it was working to create secure internet access for Iranians inside of Iran.

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