June 15, 2009 | By Danny O'Brien

Trade Sanctions and Web 2.0: Are US Regulations Hurting Free Speech in Iran?

For the past few days, Iranians have been taking advantage of US-hosted communication services like Twitter and Facebook to communicate with each other about their contested election, uncover and compare facts, and convey their experiences to the rest of the world. They've done that despite apparent attempts to block these sites by the Iranian authorities.

For those watching and listening, it's been a bracing demonstration of the power of the Internet — and the latest Web 2.0 services — to enhance free speech, wherever you live.

But EFF has also been watching with concern the blocking of Web 2.0 sites in countries like Iran. This new threat doesn't come from foreign governments: it appears to be coming from the ambiguity of the United States own exports' regulations, and how they should be applied to new web sites and services.

The problem, as is so often the case in the clash between new technology and the law, lies in the mismatch between the language of the old regulations and the new world of the Internet. The United States' export law bans much US trade with counties like Cuba, Iran, the Sudan and Syria: but those strict sanctions have long had explicit free speech exceptions carved out for the transmission of "information" and "information materials", as well as transactions involved in the "publishing and marketing of manuscripts, books, journals and newspapers ... in paper or electronic format."

The aim of such language is obvious: free speech across borders shouldn't be chilled by our export policies. Similarly the U.S. should actively support access by those suffering under repressive regimes to the modern tools of free speech like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Yet it seems that the regulations are, at best, unclear.

As a result we've seen evidence that corporate lawyers advising Web 2.0 companies may be acting defensively to protect their Internet clients from prosecution under the export laws. Earlier this year, LinkedIn appeared to deliberately block its Sudanese and Syrian users from its website, presumably out of fear that their site be classed outside of the law's free speech exceptions. And ComputerWorld last week quoted two export lawyers who thought that websites like Twitter and Facebook would be affected by sanction regulations because they provide "services" rather than simply information materials. "If you ask any lawyer who regularly practices in this area, they would say don't offer the service [to sanctioned countries]," one lawyer is reported to have said. Iran is, of course, one of those countries currently under stiff sanctions from the U.S.

Hopefully, the amazing role of Web 2.0 companies in protests in Iran and other countries will demonstrate the important role that these tools play in supporting freedom of expression, and has made obvious that companies like Facebook should never be blocked by US export regulations from being used for political organizing and speech in these countries.

EFF is looking for more evidence about the chilling effect of the export restrictions on digital tools of free expression. In addition, it seems time for the Obama administration pro-actively clarify that the Web 2.0 free speech tools do not require affirmative licensing under the export regulations.

Iranian net users have fought so hard to access and use the Web to push for freedom and democracy. It would be a tragedy if American companies blocked them out of a fear of the U.S. government's rules.


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