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US encourages technology companies to help Iranians circumvent internet outages

Iran Internet blocked (Nick Taylor/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Top U.S. officials have met with representatives of technology companies to encourage them to work on ways to facilitate Internet access in Iran after a licensing change freed up the use of software and other technology used to circumvent Internet blockages.

The United States issued a general license for such technologies last month and says they can be used by Iranians amid a crackdown on antigovernment protests.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said on October 12 that Iranian authorities have blocked Internet access amid the violent protests to suppress the Iranian people and keep human rights abuses out of the eye of the international community.

The general license, known as a GL D-2, opens the door for technology companies to provide people in Iran the tools they need to circumvent Internet shutdowns. Several U.S. technology companies are already providing new services to Iranians under the license, Sherman said.

Sherman spoke at a roundtable discussion in Washington with global technology companies on increasing access to communication tools for Iranians. The event was convened by the Global Network Initiative, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on Internet freedom issues.

The Iranian government has imposed a near-total Internet shutdown to try and quell the protests, which according to one human rights organization have left more than 200 people dead.

The protests broke out after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was taken into custody last month for allegedly wearing a hijab improperly. Eyewitnesses say Amini was beaten, while officials have said she died of illness, though they have not provided any evidence to back up their claim.

Sherman thanked the companies for taking the initiative to supply the tools, saying this is a moment of opportunity to help connect the Iranian people.

“As more technology companies offer them software, services, and hardware, the Iranian people’s ability to communicate with each other and their digital ties to the rest of the world will strengthen. And it will become more costly for their government to sever access in the future,” she said.

She added that as more Iranians gain access to the latest software and services that meet global standards for digital security and anti-surveillance technologies they can better protect themselves from government crackdowns.

Deputy Special Envoy Jarrett Blanc, who also spoke at the roundtable discussion, said the U.S. government is making efforts to hold the Iranian government accountable for the acts of violence and the Internet shutdown, including imposing sanctions on organizations and individuals responsible.

It is important to see the GL D2 as part of the U.S. response to the protests, Blanc said. Before the GL D-2 was granted there were ways that sanction policy complicated the Iranian people’s access to the Internet, which was not the objective.

The GL D-2 is a crucial pillar of this response because it means U.S. regulations are not standing in the way of Iranians accessing a free flow of information and access to the Internet, he said.