Ali Bangi is co-director of ASL19 (Farsi for Article 19), an organization that helps Iranians bypass internet censorship in Iran. He may be found on Twitter @alibangi. Nico Saldias is a PhD Candidate in Political Science and University of Toronto. You can find him on Twitter at @nicolas_saldias.
The current generation of Iranians are the most educated and cosmopolitan in the country’s history. With the introduction of the internet and smartphones, they are also the most connected. However, unlike their contemporaries in other parts of the world, they face serious challenges to access the full potential of the internet.
It is common knowledge the that Iranian government blocks access to numerous websites, but tech giants like Google and Facebook are also denying Iranians access to the full range of their services. Therefore, Iranians ability to use the internet and social media to do things from ecommerce to pushing for social change are seriously constrained.
For example, if a women’s rights group like the One Million Signatures campaign wants to distribute its literature about gender equality online, it is currently barred by Facebook from using its advertising to targets Iranians. Why the reluctance on the part of tech firms? The answer is simple: risk aversion. Tech companies are afraid or running afoul of US sanctions against Iran, and as a result, end up over-complying.
The recent nuclear deal between Iran and the international community has breathed new life into Iran’s relations with the world. However, as European Parliament member Marietje Schaake notes, “The current lack of clarity surrounding American sanctions creates legal uncertainty for European businesses.” The same can be said of non-EU firms that seek to do business with Iran.
The tech industry is no exception to the rule. The sector faces unique pressures as these companies have a special responsibility to their users: they provide services that are essential for individuals to effectively exercise their fundamental human right to freedom of expression. Overcoming this is problem is not impossible, but it requires that the US government and civil society organizations cooperate with the tech industry to ensure that Iranians have access to the websites and services that we take for granted.
Iranians continue to face significant obstacles in their efforts to spread their ideas online from blocked content to the arrests of individuals for posts on social media. Websites like Facebook and YouTube remain censored by Iranian authorities. In response, Iranian activists and ordinary citizens use circumvention tools, such as VPNs, to evade government censors.
The willingness of everyday Iranians to risk arrest to access the internet to express themselves signals the need for fundamental change. Iranians are in particular need of open access to the internet due to the constraints placed on them in public spaces by restrictive laws regarding morality and gender. The internet provides Iranians with a virtual space to engage with each other in relative anonymity and level of freedom unknown in their real lives.
Yet, tech firms risk averse behaviour regarding US sanctions has concrete consequences for Iranian users: it undermines their free expression.
Another example of how this negatively affects Iranian users is Google’s Authenticator app. This app is designed to give users an additional layer of protection for their online accounts through two factor authentication. By not providing this service, Google inadvertently gives hackers a backdoor to compromise Iranians’ online accounts through phishing, which is the favorite hacking technique for Iranian government hackers. This creates a chilling effect for citizens and civil society organizations to safely and securely promote human rights in the country. The situation is dire, and more pressure needs to be put on the US government and the tech industry to ensure that Iranians have fair and equal access to these services.
First, the US government must lead by addressing any legal ambiguity regarding sanctions and how they apply to internet companies. This can be done by creating additional exemptions to the remaining sanctions regime. For example, the US Treasury can issue a new general license that addresses new tech services that are not yet covered, like cloud services. The US government must also provide clearly stated legal guidelines for US-based tech firms regarding the services they can provide to the Iranian market. Last, the US government must notify and reassure non-US firms that they are no longer subject to the sanctions that were lifted as part of the nuclear deal. The US government must apply the same effort to undo the sanctions as they put to enforce them.
Second, international and Iranian civil society organizations must deepen their cooperation with the US government and the private sector to end sanctions overcompliance by the tech industry.
In particular, Iranian civil society organizations in the diaspora with close links to Iranian internet users can provide unique information to the US government and tech firms that can help navigate the Iranian internet. They can identify the services that are being censored by the Iranian government, and call out tech firms that are denying services that are permitted under a revamped sanctions regime. Civil society organizations can also play an important role raising awareness, particularly in the US Congress, about the unintended consequences of sanctions and its role in stifling internet freedom.
Ensuring that Iranians have fair and open access to the internet is critical work for all parties. As the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression Frank La Rue argued, “preventing the private sector from assisting or being complicit in human rights violations of States is essential to guarantee the right to freedom of expression.”
Iran will be an important test and a precedent that will show the world how committed the tech sector and the international community are in expanding and defending human rights online.