US in talks with tech companies to support internet freedom in Iran

Move is to allow the sale and distribution of tech tools to Iran without busting US sanctions

Protesters in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq in September to protest against the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody in Iran. AP
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The United States and tech companies are in discussions to find ways to counter online restrictions in Iran to support the free flow of fact-based information to the Iranian people, according to a senior State Department official.

“Iran’s continued violent crackdown on peaceful protesters is an affront to human rights,” US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman tweeted on Wednesday.

“I spoke with major US tech firms and urged them to utilise general licence D-2 to provide the Iranian people with additional services and communications tools.”

The licence is issued by the US Treasury and allows the sale and distribution of personal communication tools such as mobile phones, personal computing tools, and other related software and hardware to Iran without breaching US sanctions.

This updated licence ― the previous one is known as general licene D-1 ― will provide additional authorisation for the services that support the communication tools to assist ordinary Iranians.

The aim is to provide help to Iranian protesters “in resisting repressive internet censorship and surveillance tools deployed by the Iranian regime”, the Treasury said.

The tech support will include social media platforms, video conferencing as well as cloud-based services in support of such services, and tools that incorporate communication functions such as online maps, e-gaming, e-learning platforms and automated translation, it said.

Iranian rights and cyber activists say the Iranian government is relentlessly tightening internet restrictions and mobile broadband connections for censorship purposes and to make it harder for protesters at home to report to the world the continuing crackdown by government forces.

A group of 39 rights organisations called on Iran to restore internet access and on the International Telecommunication Union, of which Iran is a state party, to condemn Iran's communications shutdown.

Internet rights NGO Access Now supported the US sanctions changes.

"Now, the burden falls on US companies — the tech sector, as well as financial institutions and other transaction processors — to comply, and not overcomply,” said Access Now's general counsel Peter Micek. “Corporate overcompliance with Iran sanctions deprives vulnerable and marginalised people of the goods and services they need to stay safe and active in defence of human rights.”

The Norway-based Iran Human Rights (IHR) group on Wednesday updated the nationwide death toll from the protests against the regime to 201.

Iran repeatedly says, without providing evidence, that the protests are fuelled by foreign powers and enemies.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday again accused Iran's enemies of stoking "street riots".

"The actions of the enemy, such as propaganda, trying to influence minds, creating excitement, encouraging and even teaching the manufacture of incendiary devices are now completely clear," he said in statements broadcast by state media.

The protests were sparked in mid-September by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody of the morality police.

She had been detained by the morality police for allegedly not adhering to the country’s strict Islamic dress code.

Asked on Wednesday in a press briefing if the US was interested in pursuing talks to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, US State Department spokesman Ned Price replied "that's not our focus right now".

More sanctions on Iran

The protests’ main slogans are "Woman, Life, Freedom" and “Death to the dictator”.

The demonstrations reportedly spread in recent days to shops, at least two key oil facilities and the two symbolic cities of Qom and Mashad, according to social media posts.

Qom and Mashad are seats of religious learning of top clerics in the Islamic republic and regime strongholds.

The protests have spread to some schools and universities, with young women marching without their headscarves and cutting their hair in solidarity with Amini.

On Wednesday, gunshots were fired as Iranian security forces confronted protesters in the central city of Asfhan, according to the IHR.

Activists say the protests are not just about the compulsory hijab but against the whole strict ideology of the Iranian regime, which has been in power since 1979.

Meanwhile, the European Union agreed on Wednesday to impose new sanctions on Iran because of the crackdown on the protests.

The bloc’s executive arm is putting forward a package of sanctions against at least 15 Iranian people and entities linked to the death of Amini.

“We must hold those accountable that are responsible for the repression of women,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a speech to EU ambassadors.

“I believe now is the time to sanction those responsible. The shocking violence inflicted on the Iranian people cannot stay unanswered.”

The new sanctions could be formally adopted as early as next week.

Updated: October 13, 2022, 1:50 PM