Today, the the Trump Administration announced the decertification of the Iranian nuclear deal agreed by the previous administration. It's the strongest sign of many showing that the U.S. government intends to take a new and more confrontational line against Iran.
But long before the decertification, tech companies were making their own changes in attitude — this time, to Iran’s independent app development community. On August 24th, Apple began removing apps developed and targeted at Iranians from its store, including Iran’s popular online store Digikala, Iranian ride-hailing app Snapp, and the online food delivery service Delion. In September, Google followed suit. Iranian technologists, having built tools and services for their own users, suddenly found themselves shut down and cut off from their customers by the actions of American companies.
These steps reflect the continuing, damaging ambiguity of how U.S. sanctions affect online interactions. Previously, EFF and politicians from across the spectrum have worked to ensure that the free communication over the Internet should not be affected by existing trade sanctions drafted without the Internet in mind. In 2014, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) established this principle in its General License D-1, which authorized goods and services “incident to personal communications” to be provided to Iranians. That sent a strong signal to companies that apps in proprietary stores, as well as other communications tools, could be provided without risk to Iranian consumers.
The license also gave Iran’s home-grown technologists and entrepreneurs the chance to explore a more open Internet. Now, it seems that tech companies fear that the political winds may be changing, and that they may be held liable for apps in their stores which were written by Iranians.
We hope that they do not have to worry; providing for Iranian Internet users' access to digital resources and information has had broad cross-party support. Republicans and Democrats agree that increasing communication with and between ordinary Iranians is a positive move.
The Trump administration could help to further clarify that, especially in such vexed times. This week, we joined with the National Iranian American Council and others in a letter to the United States' Departments of State and Treasury asking that OFAC make clear that the scope of its exemptions explicitly include Iranian-made apps hosted by U.S companies — or for OFAC to create a licensing policy that tech companies can follow if a blanket license for all apps isn’t feasible. The letter follows a popular online campaign by thousands of app users and developers, who have added their voices to a petition at Change.Org and joined forces under the hashtag #StopRemovingIranianApps.
Empowering Iranian developers to take advantage of the Internet can only improve the fate of Iran’s Internet and its people. Only Iran's most hardline extremists — those who have raised Iran's site-blocking national firewall, repeatedly detained and threatened Iranian and foreign technologists and developers, and argued against free speech and open culture online — would want to isolate and disillusion its independent app creators.