Last December, the State Department recommended that the U.S. government adjust its sanctions on the export of Internet technology to Iran. This was a major step toward addressing an embarrassing incongruity in U.S. foreign policy. Previously, despite the United States’ espousal of democratic ideals, Congress and multiple administrations had made it illegal for U.S. companies, citizens, or lawful permanent residents to provide Iranian citizens with certain Internet tools, including personal communications programs and anti-filtering software. As the ongoing fallout from Iran’s disputed presidential election last June has shown, such tools are critical in fighting the Iranian regime’s unprecedented campaign of suppressing information and combating political opposition by censoring media, sporadically blocking or slowing the Internet, and intimidating journalists and photographers. The recent shift in U.S. policy, then, is overdue and welcome.
But for this shift to be truly effective, Washington must take further action. This is because, although filter-busting technology exists in Iran, it is hard to come by and often unreliable. Thus some technologies no longer blocked by U.S. sanctions may still remain practically unavailable to Iranians because of Tehran’s filters. Removing sanctions on instant messaging and social-networking software is not enough: to have a concrete effect, the United States must also remove the legal impediments that prevent anti-filtration software from being lawfully exported to Iran.
Iran’s Green Movement, a loosely defined opposition to the ruling establishment, regularly ignores government prohibitions on dissent and uses various outlets to protest governmental corruption, authoritarianism, and opacity. Offline examples include scrawling anti-regime slogans and sarcastic retorts on paper currency and shouting haunting chants of “God is great” from balconies at night. Online, opposition supporters organize rallies through chat rooms and social-networking sites, disseminate videos through YouTube and various other video-sharing sites, and create simple Web sites for posting firsthand accounts of anti-government activism.
Such a reliance on technology should come as no surprise, since Iran has one of the most educated populations in the
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