Anyone who followed the Green Movement protests in Iran is well aware of the importance of social media to the protesters. Without Twitter, photo sharing, and other key information-sharing technologies, it's hard to believe that the protests would ever have materialized, let alone in such numbers that the Iranian government couldn't discretely crush them. (By the way, if you're interested in seeing the social media at work in the protests, I'd highly recommend checking out Andrew Sullivan's blog The Daily Dish at The Atlantic. Whatever your opinion of Sullivan and his politics, he and his staff have done an excellent job of aggregating the protesters' Tweets, posts, and what have you.)
With the Iran protests in mind, the Treasury Department's decision this week to loosen export restrictions on social media services to Iran, Cuba, and Sudan is really no surprise. Indeed, The New York Times writes that the regulatory change has been in the works for a while.
The decision, which had been expected, underscores the complexity of dealing with politically repressive governments in the digital age: even as the Obama administration is opening up trade in Internet services to Iran, it is shaping harsh new sanctions that would crack down on Iranian access to financing and technology that could help Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.
Critics have said these sanctions are leaky and ineffective, and some say it makes more sense to spread digital technology, which makes it harder for governments to restrict the flow of information within societies, and to prevent their people from contact with the outside world.
The Treasury Department’s action follows a recommendation by the State Department in mid-December that the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is run by the Treasury, authorize the downloading of “free mass-market software” in Iran by Microsoft, Google and other companies.
Although not expressly banned, offering this sort of media technology to Iran, Cuba, and Sudan was of sufficiently ambiguous legality that companies simply abstained from doing so. Now they've gotten the green light, so hopefully they'll start cranking out IM apps in Farsi and the like. (Oh, and in case you were wondering about that other "Axis of Evil" nation, North Korea, and why it's not on the list—the sanctions against North Korea don't actually ban Internet technology. Neither do the sanctions against Syria. Go figure.)
This certainly is a welcome change, as far as I'm concerned; it reminds me of nothing so much as when McDonald's opened up restaurants in the Soviet Union. Hopefully the desire for Tweets will bring the same sort of glasnost to Iran that the desire for Big Macs helped bring to the USSR. (Obviously, this is a gross oversimplification; Big Macs didn't bring about glasnost. But I'm cautiously optimistic that the same capitalistic forces that helped cracked open the Warsaw bloc will now be turned upon Iran's theocratic shell with similar results.)
Now, it's highly unlikely that this regulatory change will hurt Western efforts to open up Iran, Cuba, and Sudan. But will it actually help? Rik Myslewski, writing for online IT mag The Register, expresses some doubts.
[T]he revised regulations don't allow for a wide-open software surge to the three-country Axis of Disagreeableness. The OFAC's 21-page ruling (pdf) specifically states that licenses will be issued only on a case-by-case basis and only for services and software "incident to the sharing of information over the Internet".
And those exports won't go to the minions of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, or Raul Castro. The new regulations prohibit the export of software or services to those overlords, their governments, or - in the case of the US's Caribbean bête noire - to "a prohibited member of the Cuban Communist Party".
In addition, the new regulations require that the software be used only for services that are "publicly available at no cost to the user".
Further, Mr. Myslewski notes that Iran may be a special case. In Iran, nearly half of the 66-million-odd population are Internet users. As such, social media technology is highly likely to fall into the hands of lots of pro-democracy/pro-détente Iranians who can make use of it to organize and challenge the government. In Cuba and Sudan however, the online population is decidedly smaller: only about ten percent each of Cuba's 11 million people and Sudan's 41 million are Internet users. That's a much smaller pool of potential protesters, both numerically and proportionally. It's far less likely that a Green Movement kind of protest, with sufficient numbers to challenge their government's control, will foment in either nation.
Certainly, there's less reason to believe that there's the same opportunity for political upheaval in Cuba or Sudan that the Green Movement has taken advantage of in Iran. Still, it's hard to see any downside to the Treasury's move—it seems all upside to me. At worst, nothing changes. At best, the Green Movement opens up Iran, and Cuba and Sudan get nascent reform movements of their own, all funded at corporate expense. What's not to like?
(Arthur Bright is a third-year law student at the Boston University School of Law and a former CMLP Legal Intern. Before attending law school, Arthur was the online news editor at The Christian Science Monitor.)