U.S. Helps Expand Internet Access for Iranians

On September 23, the Treasury Department authorized American companies to expand the range of internet services – which otherwise could be restricted by U.S. sanctions – available to ordinary Iranians. “Today we are issuing a General License to advance our efforts and commitments to ensure that the Iranian people can freely access information online,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. “These steps will help counter the Iranian government’s efforts to surveil and censor its citizens.”

The move followed a near total shutdown of internet access in Iran on September 21. The government was trying to curtail communication amid protests over the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in the custody of the morality police on September 16. She had been detained for an improper hijab, or head covering. Authorities also restricted access to WhatsApp and Instagram, widely popular platforms for sharing information.

Related Material: Protests Erupt After Death in Detention

Treasury sealDuring the first week of protests, at least nine people were killed and many were injured during violent crackdowns by security forces, who used tear gas and live ammunition. On September 22, the United States sanctioned the morality police and seven officials for human rights violations.

Related Material: U.S. Sanctions Morality Police, Senior Officials

U.S. sanctions prohibit the export of certain technology to Iran, especially items that could be repurposed for military use. The new license allows tech firms to offer social media platforms, video conferencing software and a variety of cloud-based communications tools to ordinary Iranians. “With these changes, we are helping the Iranian people be better equipped to counter the government’s efforts to surveil and censor them,” said Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo.

Related Material: New "Protection" Bill on Internet Freedom

On September 19, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had indicated that his Starlink satellite internet company would seek exemption from U.S. sanctions to work in Iran. Individual exemptions are not required in most instances under the new general license. But the commercial grade hardware that Starlink would provide would require an exemption, a Treasury Department official said in a briefing on September 23. The following are statements from the State and Treasury Departments on the license.

 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Today we are issuing a General License to advance our efforts and commitments to ensure that the Iranian people can freely access information online.  This update modernizes the Treasury Department license to expand the free flow of information and access to fact-based information to people in Iran consistent with the new ways people use the Internet today, especially the common communication activities of Iranians and use of the digital services.  These steps will help counter the Iranian government’s efforts to surveil and censor its citizens.  As a result of this expanded General License, technology firms will be able to provide more digital services to people in Iran, from access to cloud computing services to better tools to enhance their online security and privacy.

We are taking this step against a stark backdrop.  The Iranian government has cut off access to the Internet for most of its 80 million citizens to prevent them — and the world — from watching its violent crackdown on peaceful protestors.  It is clear that the Iranian government is afraid of its own people.  Mahsa Amini is senselessly, tragically dead, and now the government is violently suppressing peaceful protesters rightly angry about her loss.

In the face of these steps, we are going to help make sure the Iranian people are not kept isolated and in the dark. This is a concrete step to provide meaningful support to Iranians demanding that their basic rights be respected.

 

Department of the Treasury

Today, the U.S. Department of the Treasury issued Iran General License (GL) D-2 to increase support for internet freedom in Iran by bringing U.S. sanctions guidance in line with the changes in modern technology since the issuance of Iran GL D-1. On Wednesday, the Iranian government cut off access to the Internet for most of its 80 million citizens to prevent the world from watching its violent crackdown on peaceful protestors sparked by the brutal death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s Morality Police. While Iran’s government is cutting off its people’s access to the global internet, the United States is taking action to support the free flow of information and access to fact-based information to the Iranian people. The updated guidance will authorize technology companies to offer the Iranian people with more options of secure, outside platforms and services.

 “As courageous Iranians take to the streets to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, the United States is redoubling its support for the free flow of information to the Iranian people,” said Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo. “Today, Treasury is announcing the expansion of Iran General License D-2, which will expand the range of internet services available to Iranians. With these changes, we are helping the Iranian people be better equipped to counter the government’s efforts to surveil and censor them. In the coming weeks, OFAC will continue issuing guidance to support the Administration’s commitment to promoting the free flow of information, which the Iranian regime has consistently denied to its people.”

The expanded GL tackles the following key issues:

  • Adds covered categories of software/services to include social media platforms, collaboration platforms, video conferencing, as well as cloud-based services in support of such services, as well as tools that incorporate communication functions and are often included with authorized items or services (e.g., online maps, e-gaming, e-learning platforms, automated translation, web maps, and user authentication services)
  • Provides additional authorization for the services that support the communication tools to assist ordinary Iranians in resisting repressive internet censorship and surveillance tools deployed by the Iranian regime.
  • GL D-2 continues to authorize anti-virus and anti-malware software; anti-tracking software; mobile operating systems and related software; anti-censorship tools and related software; Virtual Private Network (VPN) client software; and related software. These tools protect the ability of Iranians to engage in free expression and bravely resist regime oppression.
  • Removes the requirement to verify communications are “personal” in nature, in line with similar licenses in other OFAC programs.
  • For activity not covered by GL D-2, expands existing case-by-case licensing policy, particularly to allow Iranian developers to create homegrown anti-surveillance and anti-censorship apps, which many Iranian people rely upon to circumvent domestic internet controls.

Access Iran General License D-2.

 

State Department Briefing

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Mahsa Amini is senselessly and tragically dead, and now the Government of Iran, rather than responding to the peaceful protesters rightly angry about her loss by addressing the fundamental problems that led to it, is simply violently suppressing protests.  And as part of that, on Wednesday, the Iranian Government cut off access to the internet for most of its 80 million citizens to prevent them and the rest of the world from watching its violent crackdown. 

While Iran’s government is cutting off people’s access to the global internet and to each other, today the United States is taking action to support the free flow of information to and among the Iranian people.  Over the past few years, the U.S. has engaged intently with major U.S. technology companies to understand the issues they face in providing access to personal communication tools for the people in Iran.  I think we all know how quickly technology moves, and as hard as it is for each of us individually to keep up with it, imagine how difficult it is from the regulatory perspective to keep up with those changes and make sure that our policy objectives are met by the framework that we put in place.

So as a result of the coordination over the course of that last year, year and a half, today the Department of Treasury has issued General License D-2, updating its guidance to expand the range of internet services available to Iranians.  The updated general license dramatically increases support for internet freedom in Iran by bringing U.S. sanctions guidance into line with changes in modern technology.  The updated guidance will authorize technology companies to offer the Iranian people more options for secure, private, outside platform and services.  With these changes, the Iranian people will be better equipped to counter the Iranian Government’s efforts to surveil and censor them. 

Before I turn it over to my friend [Senior Treasury Department Official], I just want to say how incredibly grateful all of us are at the State Department for the work that the Treasury Department has done not only over the last year and a half but over the last week in order to be able to respond, I think profoundly and in real time, to the crisis that we’re seeing in Iran with something that I think can make a meaningful difference in the Iranian people’s ability to communicate with the outside world and with each other.  And so with that, over to [Senior Treasury Department Official] in Treasury. 

SENIOR TREASURY DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The U.S. Government is committed to ensuring that the Iranian people can exercise their universal right to freedom of expression and to freely access information via the internet.  So in furtherance of this commitment to promote the free flow of information to the citizens of Iran, which the Iranian Government has consistently denied to its people, OFAC issued today Iran General License D-2, which expands the scope of authorized exports to Iran of software and services incident to the exchange of communication over the internet. 

The expanded authorization will allow U.S. companies to provide tools to the – to ordinary Iranians and assist in their efforts to resist repressive internet censorship and surveillance tools deployed by the Iranian Government, especially amidst the recent public protests and internet outages following the death of Mahsa Amini.  In addition to promoting the free flow of information to the Iranian people, General License D-2 includes important updates to reflect the technological developments of communications software and related services in recent years and it clarifies that products and services – those products and services that are authorized for exportation or re-exportation to Iran. 

General licenses are self-executing, which means that anyone who meets the criteria outlined in this general license can proceed with their activities without notifying or requesting additional permission from the Office of Foreign Assets Control.  For any activity not covered by General License D-2, OFAC welcomes and we will prioritize applications for specific licenses to authorize activities supporting internet freedom in Iran.  Specific licenses are individualized and are not public.

In the coming weeks we will endeavor to issue additional guidance that will help businesses and NGOs take advantage of the new authorizations in General License D-2.  Until then, we appreciate your understanding if we cannot answer every technical question that you may have today.

The U.S. Government will continue to identify those opportunities to support the Iranian people’s right and ability to communicate freely and without fear of government reprisals.

QUESTION: If the Iranian regime is actually cutting off the internet, will this help people to get access to the global internet rather than – we’re talking about sort of social media companies and platforms and video messaging sites, those kind of things.  You obviously can’t access those without basic internet connections.  So, could you sort of spell out for me how exactly today’s action makes it easier for Iranians to get online, to literally get online if the internet is being blocked? 

SENIOR TREASURY DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Sort of from the outset, if you think about what General License D-2 expands, it’s really three – I would say three things are expanded upon in General License D-2.  First, is that the communication tool available under D-1 were down-level.  And so what D-2 does is it updates and expands those authorized communication tools to sort of match modern times.  So, everything from social media platforms, collaboration platforms, conferencing, e-gaming, other tools that maybe were not exclusively what was before a requirement for personal communication, things like mapping tools and others.  So – and most importantly what it does is it expands the access of cloud-based services. 

Why is this key?  It’s because today so many VPNs and other sort of anti-surveillance tools are delivered via cloud.  And so it was important that this authorization expand the cloud-based services, and also that we give guidance to those cloud service providers, so that they understand that their due diligence obligations really are manageable.  And so we provided that today.

The other expansions in this general license is that – and I mentioned it briefly before – is that it removes this limitation that the authorized services be connected to personal communication.  So that was the feedback we got from many technology companies, that that limitation and ambiguity in the regulations was really a sticking point for them.  So, we’ve removed that limitation that it be tied to personal communication.

Last but not least – and this circles back to your question in part on Starlink – we expanded within this general license our licensing policy for specific licenses.  So, remember a general license, self-executing; specific license, these are privately given for activity that may be outside General License D-2.  We expanded that policy today, which is quite forward-leaning and a policy supportive of these applications, especially the anti-surveillance and other type of activity that it – to the extent it’s not covered by General License D-2.  So, we welcome these license applications.  OFAC will expedite them working with our State Department colleagues for the foreign policy guidance to issue those, so we would just welcome Starlink and others to apply.

The question probably is, folded into your original question, whether or not Starlink would necessarily – what it seeks to do – fall within the scope of this general license – or they would need to come in.  Our understanding of Starlink is that what they provide would be commercial grade, and it would be hardware that’s not covered in the general license; so that would be something they would need to write into Treasury for. 

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  I think the only thing I would quickly add to that is that, to your question, it remains the case that the Government of Iran has repressive tools available to them, including repressive tools for communications and the internet.  I think what this general license does, what the licensing policy that [Senior Treasury Department Official] outlined does is make it that much easier for the Iranian people to confront some of those repressive tools.  It doesn’t mean that they don’t exist anymore.  And so that’s, I think, what we’re going to look forward to seeing develop in our communication with the private sector over the course of the coming weeks, and then what they then will be able to rule out in terms of available services in Iran over the similar period of time. 

QUESTION:  Is general license open-ended, number one?  Number two, even non-U.S. firms are able to take advantage of it?  And also – this is where I have some technical questions – would the services companies be providing – would they be, you think, hack-free, and would the Iranian people themselves be able to easily access these services provided without needing anything that would require them to have something that the Iranian Government may be controlling?  Thank you. 

SENIOR TREASURY DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Sure – it’s [Senior Treasury Department Official], happy to start.  Yes, the general license is open-ended.  It does not have an expiration date.  The general license – to the extent our regulations flow to certain exports of U.S. goods, re-exports of U.S. goods overseas.  To the extent that there’s a scope of our regulations that are prohibiting non-U.S. person activity, they are authorized in this general license.  So, you will see some language that’s specific to U.S. persons.  In those respects, it’s because the non-U.S. person isn’t caught by the regulation.  But to the extent that they are, the general license does cover them. 

QUESTION:  Is your assessment that the companies like Amazon or Google need some follow-up from your end to sort of walk them through the policy?  We’ve had longstanding issue of sometimes even overzealous application of sanctions that have denied Iranian public from services that wasn’t even sanctioned.  Is there – are you in contact with them to make sure they take advantage and restore these services? 

Also, you did talk about Starlink a little bit and the fact that they still kind of need to apply for the hardware part of it.  But it seems to be as this sort of fundamental issue as we speak, because we are losing contact with audiences in Iran and vice versa.  The access seems to be – is indeed the most important issue.  And solving that, obviously, has come to the forefront because of it.  Is there any plan to be proactive about that, and to see if more can be done on that front? 

SENIOR TREASURY DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  The collaboration between the State Department and Treasury over some time has been to reach out and communicate with these IT companies to understand the issues that they’re having.  And the changes that we’ve rolled out today reflects direct input from those conversations.  This is something that OFAC and the State Department regularly do, which is have contact and welcome conversations and meetings with companies that are sort of within our regulatory scope or, in cases like this, companies that we seek to have authorizations that they can take advantage of and understand what additional needs they may have. 

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  I would just underscore that, to answer your question, that we and the administration, as a whole, are absolutely being and are going to continue to be proactive in outreach to private-sector actors so that they understand what’s covered by this general license.  And to the extent that any of them have ideas that they want to pursue that may require additional licensing, as [Senior Treasury Department Official] said at the very top, part of this is a commitment from us to prioritize such specific license applications from both the State and Treasury perspective, so that they move as quickly as possible.

QUESTION:  Can you all issue guidance on, if people want to donate to help women in Iran, what they’re – what they’re entitled to do legally?

SENIOR TREASURY DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, thanks so much for that question. We do have guidance on our website right now, but we’ll – that’s a great question whether we can highlight some of the available authorizations related to particularly NGOs and the ability to donate to them.

QUESTION:  Some of us saw the president of Iran yesterday, and I’d like to broaden the questioning just a little bit to ask:  Given his kind of vitriolic language, both in sessions with journalists as well as on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly, can you give us a sense of where things stand?  He seemed very belligerent, very determined not to compromise on the outstanding issues, and certainly left us with an impression that the nuclear – nuclear talks are not going anyplace anytime soon.  So, we’d – I think, all appreciate an update if possible.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  I would like then to pivot back to the news that we’re trying to explain on the GL.  Look, I think that you’re right that we didn’t hear anything particularly positive in New York this week.  The Iranians are talking about, as you mentioned, these outstanding safeguards issues at the IAEA, and our bottom line here is very clear:  The IAEA has asked some questions that Iran needs to answer so that the agency can be certain that there is no nuclear material not under safeguards in Iran.  That is the absolute heart of the IAEA’s mandate in assisting with the implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and we are 100 percent supportive of their independent efforts to execute that mandate. 

When they say that they’ve got the answers that they need, then these issues, as far as we’re concerned, won’t be open anymore.  So long as they haven’t gotten the information they need, then they remain open.  If Iran wants the issues – if Iran wants to resolve the issues, very straightforward.  They just need to provide the answers and access to the IAEA.  And the time frame on which that happens is really in Iran’s hands.

QUESTION:  I was just wondering if you could quickly give us any timeline as to when average Iranians will start benefiting from this.  I’m asking because the general sentiment is that this will not be much help in the short term in helping the Iranians during their protests – in short term, but it will, of course, help in the long term in both allowing the technologies to make – to make use of these tools instead of state-controlled ones, and, of course, also allow the government to refrain from using this – the propaganda excuse to justify the national information (inaudible). 

SENIOR TREASURY DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  Well, thank you for the question.  It’s hard to speak for private sector companies on how quickly they can pivot to provide additional services, so I would refer you to the companies that might be interested in taking advantage of the expanded GL.

QUESTION:  Number one, does this licensing move – does it contravene any Iranian law or just the Iranian law that would bar foreign companies from providing internet or other telecommunications services? 

How does this issuance today, along with the massive influx of sanctions against Iran this year, impact reentry into the nuclear deal?  It sounds like from your answer that the U.S. is still very much committed to engaging on that and this has nothing to do with the reentry into the nuclear deal.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL:  So I am not an expert on Iranian telecommunications law.  I don’t know if anything here would either implicitly or explicitly be a violation of Iranian law.  Again, I think, going back to some of the first questions that were asked, this general license does not remove every tool of communications repression that the Government of Iran has to direct at its own people.  It does, I think, make it – it does – it will over time give the Iranian people more tools to address those repressive efforts from the Iranian Government. 

On the second question, yes, I can affirm exactly what you said.  This administration remains categorically committed to mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA.  We assess that to be strongly in the U.S. national interest, and we’ll continue to work with our allies and partners to try to conclude and to begin that re-implementation.  Again, right now, I think the Iranians, themselves, need to make a decision about moving beyond some of the issues that they have raised, which go beyond the scope of the JCPOA – including the outstanding safeguards issues that Robin raised or simply resolving those outstanding safeguards issues, which, as I said, is in their power to do. 

And this action – and as you mentioned, the sanctions that we have rolled out over recent weeks, months, and years – I think these are all just a reminder of the core, really, of our view of the JCPOA, which is that the JCPOA was always intended to be a nuclear deal to put Iran’s nuclear program into a very well-monitored box.  And it works doing exactly that, and we want to get back to it working and doing exactly that.  It was never intended to and did not address other points of concern about Iran’s policies, whether those be UAVs, proliferation, support to regional proxies and terrorist networks, or as we’re seeing tragically in these weeks, its own human rights abuses and oppression of its own people. 

We are going to continue to use all of the tools that are available to us to address those other points of concerns that we have about Iran, whether we’re negotiating to return to the JCPOA, in the JCPOA, or not; and that’s – that’s, I think, what we’re demonstrating with this general license in support of the Iranian people’s fundamental right to be able to communicate.  It’s what you saw last – this week with our sanctions against the morality police, who were responsible for the tragic death in custody of Mahsa Amini and last week about UAVs and cyber technology and everything else that we’re going to continue to do with or without JCPOA.