Freedom of speech and expression are the life-blood of democracy. These notions include expressing views openly on the Internet. These basic liberties are under threat from the Iranian government, which has moved to stifle freedoms in the wake of the recent nationwide protests against the government. The twist is that Tehran may be being aided and abetted by American tech companies who, supposedly, exist in part to expand free expression.
Every Iranian city, and even the smaller towns, have seen protests unlike anything since the Green Movement protests of 2009. Swift retaliation from the government has not just been limited to murdering 32 dissidents and jailing thousands of others. The Iranian government has learned lessons well from both repressive regimes and democracies alike, that optics and spin are essential to quelling protests and keeping them from growing. If you’re a VPN user living in Iran, you’re one of the lucky ones, as you have some means of gleaning the truth amid all the propaganda.
Iranian authorities have expanded their crackdown from the streets to the Internet. They have disrupted internet access across the country, and blocked Instagram and the messaging app Telegram in a bid not only to quash the uprising, but to prevent images of their strong-armed tactics from being beamed within the country and around the world. As a result, Telegrams’ 40 million users have been effectively cut off from letting their views of what is really happening from becoming known, and from communicating with each other to take appropriate action.
This blackout by Tehran is especially damaging to the 48 million Iranians who rely on smartphones for every imaginable thing that is taken for granted in other parts of the world. This is because Iranians do online what they cannot usually do in the streets: assemble, organize, and express themselves. The fact that the crackdown might be on a greater scale than before, or that indeed there is censorship of the Internet in Iran, is not in itself surprising. What is, however, is the apparent help Tehran is getting for these repressive actions from American tech companies.
This “help” may be unintended, and a case of companies treading carefully amidst US government sanctions on the Iranian regime. The firms apparently don’t want to run afoul of these sanctions, although the US State Department maintains that quashing free speech in the country is not one of its aims. Still, many tech companies rightly fear that if they provide services to the average user in Iran, the Iranian government and Iran’s sanctioned industries could also gain access to these technologies - to the tech companies financial detriment.
The companies dread the implications for their continued financial health if their technology is compromised or co-opted. Nonetheless, if American technology companies limit Iranian users’ access to their services due to being overcautious of the sanctions regime, the result is the same - the restricting of internet access and, hence, the hindering of support for democracy and freedom. Stated goals of improving lives, especially for those most in need of digital tools of expression the services purport to provide, are hollow if not hypocritical.
Take, for example, Google AppEngine, a cloud service that Google has decided to block for Iranian internet users. This, in effect, renders Signal ineffectual and makes Iranians incapable of using other apps that could provide them access to circumvention technologies and VPNs that hide their traffic from censors. Google is not alone; Twitter’s authentication protocol is not available to Iranians, thus making their communications susceptible to government abuses. This issue is particularly alarming to activists.
The fault does not lie with tech companies alone. The State Department can help by clarifying the existing guidelines and streamline new ones in the future. The could assist tech companies in carrying out their desired mission of providing free expression, without having to worry constantly and primarily about their bottom-lines.
Views are writer's own.