The United States Treasury Department has amended its commerce regulations granting general licenses to U.S. companies to export Internet-based communications services—like instant messaging, social networking, and email—to Iran, Cuba, and the Sudan. The move is intended to boost the free flow of information in those historically repressive countries, with the idea that improving citizens’ ability to communicate with the outside world will enable free speech and expression.
“Consistent with the Administration’s deep commitment to the universal rights of all the world’s citizens, the issuance of these general licenses will make it easier for individuals in Iran, Sudan, and Cuba to use the Internet to communicate with each other and with the outside world,” said Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin, in a statement. “Today’s actions will enable Iranian, Sudanese, and Cuban citizens to exercise their most basic rights.”
The general license will enable companies like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo to offer Internet services in the three countries, including basic tools like chat and email but also things like photo and video sharing. The revised commerce regulations also allow for case-by-case exceptions for types of software not covered by the general licenses. Previously, American companies had avoided setting up services in these countries to avoid running afoul of existing sanctions.
The move comes as the Obama administration has elevated access to a free Internet to a plank in the United States’ foreign policy platform. The U.S. stance on Internet access has not been greeted with open arms around the world, however, and is currently the source of a major dispute with China, which operates the world’s largest Internet censorship regime.
Members of the United States Congress had called for sanctions against providing Internet services to Iran be lifted after post-election protests in that country showed the effectiveness of services like Twitter and Facebook to get information out to the world, bypassing government crackdowns. The United States and other countries are currently at odds with Iran over its nuclear program; Iran claims its work is focused only on developing nuclear power sources, while others accuse the country of working to develop nuclear weapons.