Tech Companies Are Complicit in Censoring Iran Protests
The world is witnessing the biggest protest movement in Iran since the 2009 Green Movement uprising. Over the last two weeks, there has been unrest in nearly every major Iranian city and dozens of smaller towns. Corruption, economic mismanagement, and neglect are the protesters’ primary grievances, though the chants quickly turned political. Predictably, the government has cracked down: More than 32 people have been killed and at least 3,700 have been detained since the protests began.
Firuzeh Mahmoudi (@firuzehmahmoudi) is executive director of United for Iran, a San Francisco Bay Area-based NGO whose mission is improve civil liberties and human rights, to support civil society, and to increase civic engagement in Iran, mostly through technology. Fereidoon Bashar (@FeriFilter) is the Co-Director of ASL19, a research and development lab working on improving Iranians access to information and freedom of expression through technology.
The repression is felt not only on the streets: Iranian authorities disrupted internet access across the country and blocked Instagram and the messaging app Telegram. Freedom of expression—which includes secure internet access—is the bloodline of democracy, but with the internet shut down, Telegram’s more than 40 million users in Iran have essentially had their communication cut off.
The decision to restrict communications has had an immense impact on the daily lives of Iranian citizens, including the more than 48 million smartphone users. That’s because Iranians do online what they cannot usually do in the streets: Assemble, organize, and express themselves. The internet is the main platform and communication tool for citizens to share their thoughts with each other and the world. Cut off from Telegram, which has been instrumental in allowing reformists to reach their constituencies, Iranian protesters have turned to circumvention tools and VPNs to access information, read about the protests, and communicate with one another.
But it’s not just the regime that is stripping Iranians of their digital freedom: American technology companies that limit Iranian users’ access to their services—the result, usually, of an overly cautious interpretation of US sanctions—are also, in effect, restricting internet access and hindering free expression.
The sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States are comprehensive, covering many individuals, institutions, and industries. Many affected companies rightly fear that if they provide services to the average user in Iran, the Iranian government and sanctioned industries could also gain access to these technologies, which could have far-reaching legal and financial implications for the companies involved. But State Department officials we’ve spoken with say that their intent is to support the free flow of information and the Iranian people’s right to free speech.
Despite years of advocacy by Iranian NGOs outside the country, as well as licenses from the US Office of Foreign Assets Control that exempt certain services and transactions from the sanction policies, tech companies continue to deny services to Iranians that could be crucial to free and open communications.
One example is Signal, a popular encrypted messaging app that serves as a secure means of communication for Iranians. The app is particularly critical now that Telegram is blocked. However, Signal has long been blocked by Iran, and while it includes a feature meant to circumvent censorship, it relies on Google AppEngine, a cloud service that Google has decided to block for Iranian internet users. This restriction persists despite years of pressure and the possibility of exemptions under OFAC General License D-1, the document that spells out how the sanctions apply to technology products and services. While it’s not the only cloud service available to Iranians, Google AppEngine could provide Iranians access to circumvention technologies and VPNs that hide their traffic from censors.
Twitter’s policy on Iran is also generating concern globally. Twitter allows users to enable two-factor authentication for their accounts by entering a phone number and then receiving a verification code via text message.
But this feature isn’t available in Iran, which effectively means Iranian users can’t improve the security of their accounts, an issue of particular concern to activists. Unofficially, Twitter warns that because the Iranian government has a monopoly over telecommunications, officials can potentially intercept communications and access these codes before the user does. But to activists on the ground in Iran, that answer offers little comfort.
No doubt that the world’s leading tech companies are balancing many goals that at times are at odds, if not contradictory, including design, development, security, and legal compliance. But if technology is going to to reach its loftiest potential and promise—to support democracy and freedom, to improve all lives, especially those most in need of digital tools of expression—Silicon Valley can and must do much more. Companies like Google and Twitter need to prioritize supporting democratic movements and plan, design, and implement accordingly.
The solutions are simple. By providing Iranians with access to services hosted on AppEngine, Google can make it harder for the Iranian government to censor its citizens. Signal can use other cloud service providers, such as Amazon Cloudfront or Microsoft Azure, that don’t block Iranian traffic. Twitter can provide a two-factor authentication option for Iranian users by allowing Iranians to add their phone numbers to their accounts. Others must do the same, as this crowdsourced document listing censored websites in Iran makes clear; services that are inaccessible in the country due to compliance with sanctions, according to the document, include Skype, Adobe Reader, WordPress, Dropbox, and Apple’s FaceTime.
The State Department and Treasury can help, too, by providing guidance to companies about how they can comply with General License D-1 while continuing to keeping communication channels and technologies open.
The organizations we work for, United for Iran and ASL19, have been building tech tools and providing solutions to circumvent internet censorship in Iran. But this isn’t enough: If Silicon Valley is truly committed to principles of democracy and freedom of expression, it must support Iranians’ ability to communicate with each other and the world by prioritizing unfettered and safe access to services.
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