Excluding Iran

A few months ago The Register published a story which noted that Yahoo! (png) and Microsoft (png) had removed Iran as an option in their country lists used when signing up for an account. (On a separate but interesting note Yahoo! has an option for “Iraq-Saudi Arabia Neutral Zone”.) Google still has Iran as an option for creating accounts, but does block GoogleEarth downloads from users in Iran (png).

Another interesting note in the article concerns Skype:

On 30 October, the Tehran correspondent of Netherlands newspaper NRC Handelsblad reported (in Dutch) that his paid Skype account had been cancelled. An email from the VoIP outfit said its financial services provider had been forced to stop taking payments from Iran.

This story reminded me of when Sun started to block downloads of Java using geolocation technology to users in Iran. Back in 2004/2005 Sun was explicit about it and used notices saying “The Java(tm) cannot be downloaded to your machine. You are located in an embargoed country.” (Some old screen shots here (automatic installer) and here (direct manual download).) Sun has now replaced the earlier messages with a generic “Your download transaction cannot be approved. Contact Customer Service.” (png)

I concur with The Register:

Whether Yahoo! and Microsoft’s apparent action is the result of an over-zealous compliance lawyer or not, the effect on US interests of denying ordinary Iranians access to free international communications is questionable at best.

It is ironic that excluding Iranians from using such services is exactly what the Iranian government is criticized for. Take the case of flickr, the photo-sharing service which has been bought by Yahoo!, since it is often blocked by Iranian ISP’s, Iranians need to use censorship circumvention methods to access the service, but now they are not permitted to sign up for a flickr account (they can, of course, circumvent this restriction too).

I’m not a lawyer, so I’m just putting this out here to inspire an lawyers who may wish to explore this but it seems to me that in some cases it may have to do with the presence of encryption technology which would fall under the U.S. export controls on encryption rather than under the U.S. embargo on Iran. In terms of the provision of Internet services there is a clear exception for “information”:

The receipt or transmission of postal, telegraphic, telephonic or other personal communications, which does not involve the transfer of anything of value, between the United States and Iran is authorized. The exportation from the United States to Iran of information and informational materials, whether commercial or otherwise, regardless of format or medium of transmission, and any transaction incident to such exportation is authorized.

But in “Guidance on Internet Connectivity (Iran)” there is some confusing statements. The document is about the provision of “Internet access” also referred to as “Internet connectivity services” but begins to start using the word “service” on its own in relation to “goods, technology or software.” However, one can be exempt “provided that the main purpose is to benefit the people of Iran through increased access to information.”

In the end it is Iranian citizens who are left out, unable to use popular tools and services increase our ability to communicate, create and express ourselves online, not because the Iranian government is censoring them but because the of the U.S. embargo.

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