US adjusts sanctions to help Iranians evade online surveillance and censorship

A computer engineer checks equipment at an Internet service provider in Tehran on Feb. 15, 2011. Photo taken Feb. 15, 2011. REUTERS/Caren Firouz/File Photo

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NEW YORK, Sept. 23 (Reuters) – The US Treasury Department issued guidelines Friday to expand the reach of internet services for Iranians, despite US sanctions against the country, amid protests surrounding Iran after the death of a 22-year-old woman in custody .

Officials said the move would help Iranians access tools that could be used to circumvent state surveillance and censorship, but would not completely prevent Tehran from using means of communication to suppress dissent, as it did by restricting internet access for most citizens. to close on Wednesday.

“As courageous Iranians take to the streets to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, the United States is doubling down on support for the free flow of information to the Iranian people,” Deputy Finance Minister Wally Adeyemo said.

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“With these changes, we will help the Iranian people be better equipped to counter the government’s attempts to control and censor them.”

Adeyemo added that Washington would continue to provide guidance in the coming weeks.

Public outcry in Iran over Amini’s death last week showed no signs of abating after days of protests in Tehran and other cities, with protesters setting fire to police stations and vehicles earlier on Thursday and reporting security forces being attacked.

Amini, a Kurdish woman, was arrested by the vice squad in Tehran for wearing “inappropriate clothing” and fell into a coma while incarcerated. Authorities have said they will investigate the cause of her death.

Internet monitoring group NetBlocks said on Thursday that a new disruption to mobile internet has been registered in Iran, where access to social media and some content is severely restricted. NetBlocks on Monday reported an “almost total” disruption to internet connectivity in the capital of the Kurdish region, linking it to the protests.

Washington has long made some internet-related exceptions to its sanctions against Iran, but Friday’s update of the general license aims to modernize them, the Treasury said.

The new license includes social media platforms and video conferencing, and expands access to cloud-based services used to deliver virtual private networks (VPNs), which provide users with online anonymity, and other anti-surveillance tools, according to an official with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Finance, who informed reporters on the permit on condition of anonymity.

The license also continues to authorize antivirus, antimalware and anti-tracking software, the Treasury said, removing a previous requirement that communications must be “personal” to facilitate compliance for businesses.

When asked how the extended license would help Iranians if their government shuts down internet access again, a foreign ministry official who also informed reporters said the Iranian government would still have “repressive tools for communication.”

The new permit makes it “easier for the Iranian people to confront some of those oppressive instruments,” the official said. “It doesn’t mean they don’t exist anymore.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk responded Friday to a Twitter post from Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the new license with the comment “Activate Starlink,” a reference to the company’s satellite broadband service — which has already been delivered to Ukraine for its fight against the Russian invasion. read more

Musk said Monday that his company would supply Starlink to Iranians and ask for an exemption from sanctions to do so. read more

The Treasury’s official briefing reporters said, “Our understanding of Starlink is that what they provide would be commercial grade, and it would be non-generally licensed hardware, so that would be something they should write in Treasury for. “

A State Department spokesman later said of Friday’s updated license that it was self-exercising and that “anyone who meets the criteria set forth in this general license may continue to operate without requesting additional permissions.”

The State Department spokesman added that if SpaceX determined that some activities targeting Iranians require a specific license, “OFAC would welcome and prioritize this.”

“Similarly, if SpaceX determines that its activity has already been authorized and has questions, OFAC welcomes that involvement as well,” the State Department spokesman said.

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Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis in New York and Simon Lewis in Washington; Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh; Editing by William Maclean and Daniel Wallis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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