NIAC Petitions U.S. Treasury for General License Update to Support Iranians’ Access to Internet

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, November 20, 2019
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org 

Washington DC – As the Iranian government implements a near total shutdown of the internet in the midst of a crackdown against widespread protests, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) called on the U.S. Treasury Department to take necessary steps to ensure U.S. sanctions are not contributing to the Iranian government’s ability to disconnect Iranians. Iranian Americans have been unable to communicate with family members during the shutdown and the isolation of Iran due to certain sanctions has unfortunately contributed to the Iranian government’s ability to separate its population from the rest of the world. 

NIAC President Jamal Abdi issued the following statement further explaining the rule range request: 

“NIAC is petitioning the Treasury Department for a formal rule change request to expand General License D-1, which has not been updated in more than five years. Over the past several months, Apple, Amazon, Google and many other tech companies have begun blocking Iranians from accessing key software and services as a result of limitations and ambiguities in General License D-1 and escalating U.S. sanctions on Iran. 

“This has forced Iranian developers to rely on Iran’s state-operated internal Internet, which has aided the Iranian government in building this infrastructure and reduced the costs of cutting off outside connections. This also undermines Iranian developers’ ability to work with the global developer community and makes it far more difficult for ordinary Iranians to access and operate virtual private networks and other important communication tools that allow them to communicate freely in spite of government censorship.

“Unfortunately, while General License D-1 was a welcome step to reduce the consequences of sanctions on Internet communications when it was first implemented in 2014, it is in need of clarification and expansion. As indicated by tech companies blocking Iranians from accessing their services, the exemptions contained in General License D-1 have not kept up with the pace of technology or the increasingly complex sanctions regime.

“NIAC strongly supported General License D-1 and has advocated in support of measures to prevent censorship technology from being acquired by Iran’s government and to ensure Iranians have access to communication technology. The formal rule change request is included below, and we look forward to working for its timely adoption.”

Has Iran’s Internet Been “Seized” by US Courts?

 

Iran Internet

Washington, DC – Last week, a number of media outlets reported that a U.S. court had ordered that Iran’s Internet be “seized” and handed over to Israeli and American victims of terrorism in order to be auctioned off to pay for damages against the Iranian government. The prospect that all Iranian domains and IP addresses would be deemed Iranian government property and handed over to settle claims against the government would deal a serious blow to advocates of an open Internet in Iran who already have long faced significant opposition from Iran’s government. The implications for ordinary Iranians’ access to the Internet could be severe.

In reality, most press reports got the story wrong. Lawyers indeed issued a subpoena for ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) to turn over all documents that list and reference contracts and agreements with Iran’s government and all Top Level Domains (TLDs) and IP addresses issued to Iran. This is part of the normal discovery process in civil lawsuits. While these lawyers may seek to claim that any contract payments between Iran and ICANN be diverted to plaintiffs or that Iran’s TLDs and IP addresses are assets of the Iranian government and subject to seizure, no court decision has yet been made on the matter.

The lawyers’ claim is part of a civil lawsuit brought against Iran’s Government and its Ministry of Intelligence and Security [MOIS] following a 1995 bus bombing in the Gaza Strip. Victims – which included a US citizen living in Israel who was on the bus and injured in the attack – sued Iran’s Government and the MOIS for providing material support to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the group held responsible for the attack. In 2006, a US federal court agreed with plaintiffs and found Iran co-responsible for the bombing. Later, the court awarded the victims $300 million in damages, recoverable against Iranian Government assets.

However, finding US-based assets of Iran’s Government has proven difficult. This difficulty has produced novel legal claims, including one last year in which lawyers claimed that the Persepolis tablets belonged to Iran’s Government and thus was subject to seizure and sale. A US federal court correctly rejected the claim.

But this is a troubling development. While the lawyers represent victims of a heinous act of terrorism, it would be a further injustice were the lawyers to succeed on their claim that Iran’s Internet belongs to Iran’s Government. While Iranians have proven adept at maneuvering around government censors, cutting Iranians off from the Internet would threaten not just hopes for an open Internet in Iran but also the widely shared interest in ensuring ordinary people in Iran can connect to the global community.

NIAC will follow developments in this case – Haim, et. al. v. Islamic Republic of Iran – closely in the months ahead.