The U.S. Department of the Treasury has loosened controls on the export of Internet-based communication services to Iran, Sudan and Cuba, in an effort to spread free-speech freedoms to those countries, the agency said Monday.
U.S. companies can now export instant messaging, e-mail and social-networking tools, blogging software, Web browsers and photo and movie sharing software, as long as the software is publicly available at no cost to the user, the Department of Treasury said in a press release.
"Consistent with the [President Barack Obama] administration's deep commitment to the universal rights of all the world's citizens, the issuance of these general licenses will make it easier for individuals in Iran, Sudan and Cuba to use the Internet to communicate with each other and with the outside world," Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin said in a statement. "Today's actions will enable Iranian, Sudanese and Cuban citizens to exercise their most basic rights."
Instant messaging, e-mail and other Internet communications programs will enable the "free flow of information" in the three countries, he added.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in January that her agency will launch several new initiatives focused on fighting Internet censorship, including working with businesses and other groups to develop mobile applications that help residents of countries with repressive governments report problems.
The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a digital rights group, praised the decision to loosen the export controls.
"It's a really great first step toward making sure that free expression and access to information on the global Internet isn't actually chilled by our own export control policies," said Cynthia Wong, a CDT staff attorney.
However, U.S. lawmakers have expressed recent concerns about U.S. technology being used to block access to the Internet or conduct surveillance on residents of countries such as Iran, Wong noted. The U.S. government should consider stronger export controls on some kinds of Web filtering and surveillance tools, she said.
Berin Szoka, director of the Center for Internet Freedom at free-market think tank the Progress and Freedom Foundation, also praised the change.
"I'm delighted to see that the Treasury Department is implementing Secretary Clinton's pledge to make it easier for citizens of oppressive, undemocratic regimes to use Internet communications tools like e-mail and social networking services offered by U.S. companies," he said. "It has been no small tragedy of mindless bureaucracy that our sanctions on these countries have actually hampered communications and collaboration by dissidents -- without doing anything to punish ruling regimes."
But Szoka said he was "at a loss" to explain why the waiver was limited (PDF) to no-cost software.
"The U.S. has long objected when other countries privilege one model of software development over another -- and rightly so, for the proper policy position between open source and closed source, and between free and paid is one of simple neutrality," he said. "Why should we allow dissidents to download free 'Web 2.0' software but not paid ones? Not all mass-market tools dissidents would find useful are free."
Many applications that are free to download require payment to get full functionality, sometimes including privacy and security features, Szoka said.
"If Treasury is worried about creating a loophole that could allow evasion of U.S. sanctions, surely there are better ways to prevent such abuse than simply continuing to ban even small software purchases, especially since the dollar amount for 'freemium' apps is often just a few dollars," he added. "Or the U.S. Government could even negotiate a blanket license for all downloads from embargoed countries with software developers to ensure that our export controls do not prevent dissidents from getting the best tools available."
A Treasury Department official said presidentially or congressionally ordered trade sanctions remain in place against all three countries, meaning sale of many U.S. goods and services into all three countries is still illegal.