March 10, 2010 | By Danny O'Brien

Better U.S. Net Rules for Iran, Cuba and Syria

The Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced on Monday key amendments to the regulation of United States sanctions against Cuba, Iran and Sudan.

The new provisions give a blanket license for the export of "certain services and software incident to the exchange of personal communications over the Internet, such as instant messaging, chat and email, social networking, sharing of photos and movies, web browsing, and blogging, provided that such services are publicly available at no cost to the user."

This clarification is just what EFF called for last June, and will go a long way to allay concerns that online service providers based in the U.S. cannot offer their services in those countries. Previously, despite the well-known freedom-enhancing capabilities of services like Twitter and Facebook in repressive regimes like Iran, it was unclear whether those companies could even offer their services there without falling foul of the United State's broad prohibition on the export of goods and services to these regimes.

This was not a hypothetical concern: other services that were useful for dissidents to communicate and organize, like Microsoft, and Google's instant messaging clients had previously been blocked from being used in these very countries -- not by the repressive states, but by companies themselves, cautious of violating sanctions.

While the change in the letter of the law is clearly positive, perhaps just as important is the signal this sends about the administration's new guiding policy on global Internet freedom.

Previously, cautious companies, afraid of running afoul of OFAC, have frequently forbidden or blocked all use in sanctioned countries, even when the letter of the law did not require such draconian steps. You can see this institutionally paranoid language, and its inevitable results, in Bluehost's terms of service, which pre-emptively prohibits all citizens of sanctioned countries from even applying to use their hosting facilities (a policy which lead them to shamefully throwing innocent Zimbabwean activists off their service last year).

Now we are moving (slowly) to a new, and better default, where technologists and their lawyers might assume that free Internet services that facilitate free expression and association need not be blocked pre-emptively for anyone, anywhere.

The Obama administration has shown with these changes that it would prefer to move toward that end. Have we got there yet? Is it what export law now says?

While we wait for export regulation experts to sweat the details, the answer is still far too hazy for comfort.  While the State and Treasury departments have fixed much that was wrong with Iranian, Cuban and Sudanese sanctions, there are still regulations on, for instance, Zimbabwe, Syria and North Korea for techies and their lawyers to worry about, and those sanctions still inhibit making software generally available. We also would like to see more clarity about collaborative software development locations, like Sourceforge.

We hope that this administration backs up these first steps with a continuing review of export rules, and pro-actively works to reassure Internet companies that they are free to build an open Internet for everyone, without expecting a knock on the door from their own government.

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