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June 28, 2012

How Google, Yahoo, and Go Daddy are Helping to Silence Iranians

Given the public attention surrounding Apple’s over-enforcement of sanctions, now is a good opportunity to look at the broader issue of how sanctions policies negatively impact access to communications technology for people inside Iran. Today, NIAC called on Internet service companies to lift the “electronic curtain” over Iran and other sanctioned countries in a letter signed by a coalition of Iranian, Cuban, and Syrian diaspora organizations, and human rights and Internet freedom organizations.
The fact is, even as the White House takes efforts to lift the “electronic curtain” imposed by Iran’s government, U.S. sanctions are part of the fabric of that curtain.
As of now, many companies that offer basic Internet communication services and websites–like Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, or Go Daddy hosted sites–do not allow their services to be accessed by Iran, even though they are technically exempt from sanctions. NIAC is targeting these companies in today’s letter and demanded that the public of sanctioned countries have access to the basic tools and platforms necessary for communicating safely and securely online
Before 2009, Iran was subject to extremely strict and broad sanctions at the hands of the United States, completely blocking communication technology such as computers, phones, modems, etc. These communication tools are increasingly essential in embargoed countries as a means of communicating freely and supporting operations that are pushing for social and political change. With these tools cut off, activists struggle to find the means necessary to communicate freely–relying on a sort of cyber black market involving Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) or thumb drives to access software, services, and websites.
Especially after seeing the effect that social media had during the 2009 Green Movement, the Obama administration has made some adjustments to U.S. sanction policy. In 2010, the Obama Administration exempted basic, free Internet communication tools from sanctions and issued special licenses for other Internet communication software and hardware. In addition, this past Norooz, Obama pushed Internet communication companies to make their services available in Iran and to help lift the “electronic curtain” that is helping to silence the Iranian people.
However, despite these efforts, many companies are still not providing their services to the public of embargoed countries. This is unacceptable.
Thus, NIAC and groups including United4Iran, International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Access, Council of the Americas, Cuba Study Group, and the Syrian American Council are going public. “We ask you to end unnecessary and counterproductive restrictions to sanctioned countries,” reads the letter, “to ensure that at-risk populations have equal access to a free and secure Internet conducive to facilitating social, political and economic growth.” The letter explains that, without these services in sanctioned countries, “Users are forced to browse and participate on a limited and unsafe Internet, exposed to regime surveillance, censorship and hacking.”
NIAC hopes that with enough pressure these companies will work to lift the growing “electronic curtain” over Iran and stop unnecessarily over enforcing sanctions. By having the services of these Internet communication companies, including Apple, Google, Yahoo, and Go Daddy, said companies would stand with the people of Iran and provide the simple, but extremely valuable, tools necessary for communicating safely and securely online.

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