US expands internet access in Iran as Tehran cracks down on protests

Treasury Department allows technology companies to offer Iranians access to secure web platforms and services

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The US Treasury Department on Friday eased restrictions on internet access in Iran after Tehran cut web access for about 80 million citizens to prevent them from watching its “violent crackdown” on protests over the death of Mahsa Amini.

“While the Iranian government is cutting off its people’s access to the global internet, today the United States is taking action to support the free flow of information to the Iranian people,” said US Special Envoy to Iran Robert Malley.

The department's updated guidance will authorise technology companies to offer Iranian citizens access to secure platforms and services after Tehran shut down access to WhatsApp and Instagram — two of the most widely used social media platforms in the country — on Wednesday.

At least 50 people have died in protests that erupted over the death of Amini, a 22-year-old woman from Iran's western Kurdistan province.

Amini fell into a coma last week after she was taken into the custody of the government's morality police for not covering her hair properly.

Iranian authorities said Amini died of a heart attack, but her father claimed the bruises on his daughter's body were covered and that her family were prohibited from seeing them.

“It is clear that the Iranian government is afraid of its own people. Mahsa Amini is senselessly, tragically dead, and now the government is violently suppressing peaceful protesters rightly angry about her loss,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The expanded licence issued by Washington is designed to support communication tools that will assist Iranians in resisting internet censorship and surveillance tools used by the state.

It will also authorise VPNs, anti-tracking software, anti-censorship, anti-malware and related tools to protect Iranians' ability to engage in free expression.

Tools and services such as online maps and user authentication services, as well as social media platforms, will be added to the list of covered categories.

“In the face of these steps, we are going to help make sure the Iranian people are not kept isolated and in the dark. This is a concrete step to provide meaningful support to Iranians demanding that their basic rights be respected,” Mr Blinken said.

Videos posted on social media this week showed Iranian women cutting their hair and burning their headscarves.

Other videos shared online earlier this week have shown Iranian security forces using teargas and water cannons to scatter people engaged in protests that have broken out in at least 13 cities across the country.

Speaking on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Thursday, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said that “acts of chaos” are unacceptable, in an apparent warning to protesters.

Mr Raisi said Amini's death would be “steadfastly” investigated. He also blamed the West for what he called “double standards” over human rights.

The violence against the protesters was condemned by a group of UN experts, who urged Iranian authorities to immediately cease the use of lethal force in peaceful assemblies.

Mahsa Amini's death sparked protests across Iran, prompting Tehran to cut off internet access to millions. Shutterstock

The Treasury's actions on Friday came a day after it sanctioned Iranian morality police and other officials.

Those who meet the categories in the new guidelines issued, called General Licence 2, do not need to request permission from the Office of Foreign Assets Control to proceed with their activities, a senior administration official told reporters.

Elon Musk's Starlink system is not covered under the updated guidance, so the world's richest man would still need to seek an exemption to use his constellation satellites to beam data into Iran because of the specifics of the project, the Treasury Department said.

Mr Musk has said he will seek an exemption to sanctions so Iranians can gain access to his company's technology, and late on Friday he tweeted that he was "activating Starlink".

The general licence does not have an expiration date. Officials said they aim to issue additional guidance on business and NGOs in the coming weeks.

Updated: September 24, 2022, 4:55 AM