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Iran protests spark debate over U.S. tech sanctions and responsibilities of Big Tech

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Demonstrators in Iran are struggling to gain access to the online tools that would help them organize and stay safe. As protesters continue to swell the ranks of Iran’s jails and morgues, some Iranians are asking why Washington and Silicon Valley are not doing more to stop the repression.

Calls for action have stirred up long-standing debates over the impact of the vast raft of U.S. sanctions on Iran, including those targeting tech companies offering services to Iranians online, as well as over the global responsibilities of Big Tech.

The issues involved — the unplanned outcomes of long-term sanctions and the inherent biases built into content moderation, among others — are not unique. But in the case of Iran, policymakers in the short term face few satisfactory options.

One of the key factors fueling the protests — which were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of so-called morality police and have evolved into a widespread rebellion against Iran’s clerical leaders — is the mounting wrath of a generation raised on the internet. The young “do not accept a lot of what was forced on us,” Negin, a high school teacher in Tehran who joined the demonstrations, told The Washington Post. Out of concern for her safety, she gave only her first name. “I think their biggest difference is that they were born into cyberspace.”

Sanctions and censorship are making the Internet in Iran less accessible, analysts say

Limiting access to the digital world is a key part of Tehran’s efforts to silence protests, nearly one month in. Authorities have blocked WhatsApp and Instagram (other major international social media platforms are banned), shut off or limited internet and cellular access, and doubled down on online surveillance censorship. Despite the risks, Iranians still find ways to share videos, connect with foreign journalists and activists, and check in with family and friends abroad.

Among the many victims of Tehran’s crackdown are tech experts such as Amir “Jadi” Mirmirani, who was arrested Oct. 5. Mirmirani hosted a well-known podcast and last year received Iran’s prestigious Science Outreach Award. But he had criticized the government for building its own internet network and called out Iranian IT companies for working with the state and enabling its online censorship.

“I am in shock because of the near total silencing of so many valuable sources of information on tech, internet and online freedoms from inside the country,” Mahsa Alimardani, a senior researcher at the internet freedom group Article 19, tweeted Oct. 5. She cited five similar arrests in recent weeks.

The Gen Z rebellion against Iran’s regime

Washington’s reaction has followed a familiar script: condemnation and sanctions. The Biden administration has treaded with care. Direct support for protests can backfire, given widespread skepticism about the United States in Iran and Iran’s top leaders blaming the unrest on Western instigators.

Biden has been accused by critics, as I wrote in January, of prioritizing “negotiating a return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which would grant Iranians relief from nuclear-related sanctions, leaving in place a host of other blacklists.” The protests may pose a test to that approach.

On top of Iran’s restrictions, some tech sanctions make it harder for protesters to organize and share information online. Advocates have for years pushed policymakers to update exemptions for tech-related sanctions limiting what internet services, software and hardware Iranians can import or use. My colleague Jason Rezaian wrote in a recent op-ed, “these communications sanctions are part of a myopic approach that filters all Iran issues through the lens of countering nuclear development and other potential military threats through economic sanctions. Invariably, though, ordinary people and civil society end up suffering many of the severest impacts.”

The Treasury Department on Sept. 23 issued new guidelines to make it easier for companies to offer certain exempted services, such as cloud storage programs. The changes “advance internet freedom and the free flow of information” and offer “greater access to digital communications to counter the Iranian government’s censorship,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted. The Treasury also designated Iran’s minister of interior, minister of communication and head of the cyber police, among others, citing their roles in the crackdown.

Russians look to Iran for lessons on life under long-term sanctions

In the short term, regulations are “not going to have an impact on the internet repression that is aiding the protest repression,” Alimardani said. Alongside Iran’s censorship, years of sanctions cutting off Iranians from fast-changing technologies have inadvertently boosted Tehran’s efforts to build its own national internet and centralize online control, she said.

Iranians are increasingly worried about their safety when they do get online. Even before the uprising, surveillance and companies sharing data with the state were of major concern. Virtual private networks and other encryption services are needed to bypass censorship and mask online activity. But the strongest are made by companies outside Iran, and some charge a fee that most Iranians under sanctions can’t pay. (At least one U.S. company has waived the fee.)

Giving people a false sense of security can also be dangerous. Elon Musk tweeted Sept. 23 that he had “activated” his satellite-based internet service Starlink over Iran — despite major logistical challenges that would make it difficult for Iranians to connect. The news reached Iran, where some people downloaded apps advertised as Starlink-related only to receive malware instead, said Pouria Nazemi, an Iranian journalist based in Montreal.

Tech companies could start crafting more robust policies around the needs of users in authoritarian places where governments shut down the internet to quell dissent. In the meantime, Silicon Valley alone can’t stop Iran’s current outages, Nazemi said. But some critics say the swift response by Twitter and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, to change its rules after Russia invaded this year showed the companies prioritized some countries over others. Meta, for example, loosened its hate speech policies for Ukraine; Iranians still have posts that include “death to the dictator” — a key protest slogan with a long backstory in Iran — flagged and taken down.

At a minimum, Nazemi said, tech leaders in Silicon Valley could throw support behind colleagues such as Mirmirani and others putting their freedom on the line, “so people who are arrested in the tech sector know that they are not forgotten.”

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