The protests that began in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini in September are fundamentally linked to the defense of women’s rights. However, these protests also stand out because they led to a change in the U.S. sanctions program against Iran, rather than an exception; something disruptive and unusual.Specifically, the U.S. Treasury Department introduced a new license that eases controls on U.S. companies exporting technology products to Iran to provide Internet services, support social networking platforms, allow video conferencing and cloud services, and support tools and software Against censorship.
Internet disruptions and their impact on security and rights
The reason: Government authorities have stepped up cuts to domestic internet traffic and increased content blocking on social networks like Instagram and WhatsApp, given that these spaces have been used to mobilize and share images and videos of the protests.This is nothing new, as during the November 2019 protests in Iran there were already problems accessing services such as payments for economic reasons online.
Iran is the third country in the world to implement a government-backed internet shutdown in 2021, according to the group visit now, second only to India (106 blocks) and Myanmar (15). Iran scored five. Trends show that they are usually carried out around election time or protest day.
Many countries that block the Internet do not have strong technology industries of their own. However, some do have public bodies that manage Internet Governance certification, which allows them to better self-govern and centralize decisions to redirect Internet traffic and allow them to apply security technologies. deep pocket check, which allows monitoring, redirection and alteration of Internet traffic. National Information Network Project (National Information Network Project) in Iran.
Given the trend of blocking the internet and social networks, the number of people looking for alternative platforms has increased during the Iranian protests. You can’t use Telegram because it was blocked in 2018. Some companies, such as those from Canada, have allowed access to their messaging services, which caused usage of the app to increase from 3 million to 10 million in a few days during the protests in January 2018.
Through the funding of several U.S. government development programs, civil society organizations use other technological tools in Iran, such as bookworm(Democracy in the Near East), a State Department-funded program to promote democracy and human rights in Iran, which will include training Iranian activists on Internet freedom, among other things.
The Role of Iran Sanctions and the Technical Case
However, these two measures – finding alternative platforms and funding development programs offered by the private sector – are not enough to tackle digital rights.
The Biden administration has applied for licenses exempt from sanctions to export technology products to Iran that meet the needs of the private sector and civil society. This is not a new license, since in 2013 the first license to direct in this sense was launched.However, the license only allows six types of activity (instant messaging, chatting, and email; social networking; photo and video sharing; web browsing; and write a blog) and ask for «Training Communication Required». The first license has been criticized for lacking legal certainty, which has dampened incentives to export technology to Iran in recent years.
The renewed license expands the number of types of services the U.S. can provide to Iran through 2022 and does not require proof of «necessity.» Additionally, for apps that «support Internet freedom in Iran, including the development and support of anti-surveillance software by Iranian developers,» the U.S. Treasury Department encourages companies to apply for special licenses that can be issued more quickly.Exceptions to economic sanctions against Iran first apply to softwarenot so much hardware – This could make it difficult to export physical products, such as Elon Musk’s proposed Internet service via StarLink’s microsatellites.
Implications for Global Geopolitics
The exceptions to economic sanctions against Iran appear to be somewhat exceptional. This exception, however, demonstrates the growing role of technology at the geopolitical level, both in terms of security and economics and human rights implications.
It is almost unheard of for changes in a sanctions program to look so packed and with few exceptions. The measure is likely to be part of President Joe Biden’s strategy to revive the 2015 nuclear deal rejected by Donald Trump, and the current U.S. administration wants to revive work already done. It is being carried out by the European External Action Agency.
On the other hand, the blockade of the Internet does not represent a legal vacuum of international rules. Under Article 35 of the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) statute, the U.N. agency also contested the space last year, contracting states have the right to «suspend telecommunication services» as long as they notify other countries and the ITU secretary-general immediately. As far as the current protests in Iran are concerned, the ITU has not been informed.
Ultimately, this case calls to mind the need to scale up tech diplomacy efforts. In the EU, the European External Action Service and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recently completed a campaign on the human rights impact of Internet disruptions. The Human Rights and Democracy Action Plan 2020-2024 includes more than 10 technical policy measures. The European Council’s July 2022 conclusions on digital diplomacy demonstrate a commitment to safeguarding security and rights in the technology sector at a global level. Likewise, the recently appointed inaugural ambassador for the U.S. State Department’s Office of Digital Policy and Cyberspace may play a bigger role in this, also a manifesto for the internet-based future. The EU-US Trade and Technology Commission’s Working Group 6 on the irresponsible use of technology for security and human rights needs to expedite its work.
This is not an easy task. Translating declarations and campaigns into diplomatic initiatives, building alliances with third countries for decision-making and setting political agendas, and cooperating on technical issues are both necessary and strategic.
Image: Protests in support of women’s rights in Iran following the death of Masha Amini in Stuttgart (Germany). Photo: Ideophagous (Wikimedia Commons).