Washington, DC – NIAC and a group of Iranian American and human rights organizations are urging the U.S. government to lift restrictions that have recently prevented Iranians from hosting apps on the Apple and Google app stores.
In a Letter to Sec. Tillerson & Mnuchin sent today to the State and Treasury Department, the organizations officially requested that the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) reconsider the scope of the current licensing policies that affect Iranian developers whose apps have been removed from Apple and Google app stores.
On August 24, 2017, it was reported that Apple began removing applications developed by Iranians from its mobile app store. Within a week, Google had taken similar action. Iranians reacted by taking their frustrations to social media, with the trending hashtag #StopRemovingIranianApps. Many tweeted in English during Apple’s annual iOS event to gain the attention of Apple CEOs to bring attention to this issue. Yaser Bahrami, an Iranian app developer, tweeted: “Today, Apple is the first enemy of iranian [sic] iOS developers. We are developing software not nuclear weapon.” Another user, an Iranian computer engineer named Payam, said this removal of Iranian apps from Apple and Google stores made it seem as if the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) never even happened.
While much of the backlash was directed at Apple and Google, the removal of apps was likely due to the existing U.S. trade embargo on Iran. Companies like Google and Apple have begun allowing Iranians to access and download software in recent years,. following the Obama Administration’s decision to exempt communications technology from the Iran embargo. The companies had also hosted apps by Iranian developers on those platforms until recently. That may be because, while the exemption allows for software to be exported to Iranians, it does not necessarily apply to the hosting of Iranian apps. It is unclear if recent threats by Donald Trump to abandon the nuclear deal may have prompted companies to reevaluate their policies regarding Iran, but their interpretation that they are barred from hosting such apps may be correct. A fix may only be possible if the Treasury and State Department broaden the exemption to allow the hosting of Iranian apps, as urged in the organization’s’ letter.
In addition to NIAC, the letter was sent by Access Now, ASL19, Center for Human Rights in Iran, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Iranian American Bar Association, PARS Equality Center, Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans and United4Iran.
The full text of the letter is below:
October 11, 2017
Dear Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Mnuchin:
We are writing to raise concerns regarding recent events in which Apple and Google appear to have deleted mobile applications (“apps”) developed by Iranian users from their respective mobile application stores (“app stores”). These events are an impediment to the free flow of information and private entrepreneurship independent of the government of Iran. We are concerned that the actions by Apple and Google were mandated by current U.S. sanctions laws and regulations administered by the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”), and are herein requesting OFAC to reconsider the scope of its current licensing policies and amend those policies as needed to ensure that Iranians are able to make their own apps available on app stores operated by U.S. parties.
On February 7, 2014, OFAC, in consultation with the State Department, issued General License D-1 (“General License with Respect to Certain Services, Software, and Hardware Incident to Personal Communications”) in order to facilitate the Iranian people’s access to information. GL D-1 was widely praised as an effective example of securing human rights, protecting access to online information, and avoiding government censors.
As a result of GL D-1, the Iranian people – including Iranian youth – were permitted access to apps made available from app stores run by U.S. companies, such as Apple and Google. Upon being granted access to apps made available from app stores like Apple and Google, many young Iranian developers themselves created their own apps for purposes specifically relevant to the Iranian people and submitted those apps to app stores operated by Apple and Google, where they were posted. The startup ecosystem created by young Iranian entrepreneurs has gained international attention for its promoting opportunities for both men and women to secure independence from the traditional state dominated economies of Iran. This movement has continued despite persecution by hardline elements.
Recently, though, both Apple and Google appear to have come to the conclusion that GL D-1 does not provide license authorization for U.S. companies, such as themselves, to host apps developed by Iranian users on their app stores. The disappearance of popular apps created by young Iranian developers and previously made accessible to Iranian users has created shockwaves amongst Iranians online – a potent feeling that they are being unfairly punished for the seemingly perpetual geopolitical dispute between their government and the government of the United States.
We have appreciated the consideration that has gone into previous efforts by the U.S. government to broaden general license authorizations aimed at easing the burdens placed on the Iranian people by the U.S.’s comprehensive trade and investment embargo with Iran. We have likewise valued the manner in which the Departments of State and Treasury have received our ideas in the past regarding these matters. We believe that recent events merit OFAC to consider broadening the scope of GL D-1 as to expressly authorize U.S. parties to host apps developed by Iranian users on their app stores. Alternatively, if OFAC has concerns about issuing a general license authorization regarding the hosting of such apps, then OFAC should promulgate a statement of licensing policy specific to this matter so as to inform interested parties that OFAC will review license applications to engage in such conduct under a favorable presumption. These steps are critical to remediate the backlash that has been stirred amongst Iranians online and to ensure that the Iranian people are able to fully access personal communications technologies and evade the reach of their own government’s censors.
We trust that your agencies will engage in a thoughtful review of this letter and reconsider its current licensing policies regarding this matter. Further, we hope that this recent issue is not the result of any policy shift away from building bridges with the Iranian people through technology, but instead the result of unforeseen circumstances and technological developments outpacing current licensing. We would appreciate a meeting with appropriate representatives to discuss this matter in fuller detail and engage in a frank conversation regarding any concerns about broadening GL D-1. We thank you for your consideration, and we look forward to your responses.
Center for Human Rights in Iran
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Iranian American Bar Association
National Iranian American Council
PARS Equality Center
Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans