In the culmination of a successful civil society campaign led by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran together with several civil society activists and organizations, the US Treasury Department issued a general license lifting sanctions on the export of personal communications tools and services to Iran on May 30. At the same time, the Canadian government also announced an exemption for technology from its own trade sanctions with Iran.
In an interview with the Campaign, independent Internet security expert Collin Anderson, who participated in the campaign to lift the technology sanctions, described the general license as “an exemplary case of civil society organizations from different fields working together.” Congratulating the US administration for lifting the technology sanctions, Anderson said, “Now we have to push private companies,” encouraging them to “actually act and not be censors of the Iranian public in the same way that the government is.”
Discussing the success of civil society and the US government in creating the technology exemptions, Anderson said, “Now that both of these two parts of society have done their part, now it’s up to the private companies. So as much as this is great, it’ll be kind of worthless if for example Google doesn’t stop blocking some of its services.”
The general license issued May 30 lifts US sanctions on technologies, services, and personal communications tools such as mobile phones, PDAs, SIM cards, modems, routers, laptops, tablets, and personal computing devices, amongst other related software and hardware.
Private sector companies may now legally export personal communications tools and services to Iranians, though concerns remain about how Iranians will be able to purchase them given the ongoing financial sanctions. In one immediate response to the general license, Apple opened its App Store to Iran on June 3.
The full interview with Collin Anderson is below.
International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI): What was your role in the campaign to lift the technology sanctions?
Collin Anderson (CA): Well, I would say that I, along with a number of people including the International Campaign [for Human Rights in Iran], have had a long and sustained series of engagements with private companies, policymakers, and people in federal agencies, in order to educate them on how the sanctions regime, and how interpretations of the sanctions regime lead to policy outcomes that maybe are unintended consequences. And so, I am a person with a technical background, and live in DC, so I have a particular opportunity to be one of the chorus of voices.
ICHRI: When did you start working on this issue?
CA: The winter of 2011, for a serious amount of time. I’ve worked on technology, I’ve worked on access to information issues in Iran for much longer than that, for a few more years. So this has always been a very significant impediment, but however in terms of trying to convene a civil society campaign, since about December 2011.
ICHRI: The campaign to lift the technology sanctions involved several civil society organizations and private companies. Who made up this coalition?
CA: NIAC [National Iranian American Council], International Campaign [for Human Rights in Iran], and United for Iran were always at the core of it. But also I think the thing that really gave us a lot more weight was that it wasn’t just about the Iranian diaspora, and it wasn’t just about Iran per se, and then on top of that it wasn’t the same cast of characters. You had a much more broad swath of civil society, including technology groups, that haven’t necessarily always been within the fold on these kinds of issues. So you had organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), you had Access Now, you had the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, TOR Project, Witness, Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, and a number of [other] organizations…. There was a lot of people that at some point just sort of stepped up.
On top of that, have in mind that the issues that affect Iran also affect other countries. And so, in terms of the same sanctions regime that create problems for access to information in Iran also do for Syria, Sudan, Cuba, and—North Korea has bigger issues. So you also had Syrian groups and Cuban groups who were joining in on some of these letters as well. And unfortunately they aren’t the direct beneficiaries right now, but whenever you see those expansions of sanctions exemptions for Iran, you generally a couple of weeks later or concurrently see the same thing for Syria or for the other sanctioned countries. So you had technology groups, you had groups whose interest was in other sanctioned countries, and I think that was what was really part of the success of this.
ICHRI: In terms of both the groups themselves and also the government, how was the cooperation between these groups and the government to help the Iranian people? What were some major difficulties?
CA: The chief motivation of the US government at this point is not to enable the Iranian regime to gain access to technology that might help facilitate a nuclear program. So immediately when you say, “But I want to drop sanctions to technology,” there is an information gap. The chief obstacle of these organizations was to fill that gap with education and say, for one these are technologies that clearly serve a purpose for free expression and for social and political development in the country. And on top of that, a nuanced policy towards sanctions and towards access to technology is actually what’s required. You don’t need to have a sort of monolithic ban to be effective in your goals. So you can allow iPhones, and just by allowing iPhones you’re not going to facilitate the nuclear program, or even potentially human rights abuses. That was another thing, a chief concern that if you allow access to for example networking equipment, that somehow along the way that will be able to help facilitate their censorship regime. So that was the biggest impediment.
Going forward there are still going to be a lot of impediments. Unfortunately the sanctions regime is as much about what a private company’s interpretation is as opposed to what the letter of the law is. So the role of civil society has been to educate governments and educate private companies on what the conditions on the ground are, what the need is, and what the ramifications of current policy is.
ICHRI: How will this lifting of sanctions affect the people of Iran practically?
CA: I think it’s going to get a lot easier the more you move into things that are intangible. For example there are things that would’ve been very difficult to get access to, like a VPN [virtual private network], application markets for cell phones, for example, anti-malware. These are things that were generally blocked if the person using them was to originate from Iran. Now the idea is that people’s anti-virus can work properly. There may just be a proliferation of new anti-filtering tools. A lot of the anti-filtering tools are commercial products, so you might just as well see a lot more Iranians having a lot more choices as far as what tools they use. Even things like software updates often did not work if, for example, you were trying to update your Java on your computer from Iran, it generally wouldn’t work. So the slow attrition of patience that people had experienced because they were trying to browse the Internet—an Internet that’s already filtered—I think they’ll have less impediments, at least coming from US providers.
ICHRI: Can you go further into the implications of private companies’ interpretations of sanctions and how that is affecting people’s access? Will the financial sanctions that have not been changed affect people’s ability to purchase communications?
CA: The letter of the law is a lot different than the actuality. Just like medical goods not making it into the country, well there is a general license on medical goods. The problem is not the legality of the export, but the infrastructural, systemic impediments that aren’t necessarily directly based on the law. Technology is going to be linked up with that. It does feed back into that whole issue of there needs to be broader reform, there needs to be broader clarity in the way the financial system interacts with the law with regards to perfectly legal transactions that are more often than not, in fact, in the best interest of everyone involved, for it to happen. Not just the US government turning its back because it’s politically expedient but because it has an interest in not having Iranian population die of cancer.
ICHRI: What do you think is necessary for the changes to be implemented? How do we bridge the gap between companies’ interpretations and the letter of the law?
CA: That might get out of where my current thought process feels confident in. I don’t know. I think the Treasury plan or policy thus far has been to establish channels where there is clear legality, where everyone involved understands the boundaries, but I don’t know how successful that has been thus far. [This is] the issue that everyone is realizing now is going to be one of the bigger hurdles.
The success or the failure of the general license is not based off of whether Apple goes and opens a Tehran Apple store. It’s fundamentally about these peripheral things and these on-on-one transactions. In effect, it may have perfectly well been that a week ago, if a parent or a child sent an iPhone to their family inside of the country, that would have been a sanctions violation. That doesn’t require banking infrastructure. Now these routine things are a lot more legitimized. And on top of that, to the best of my knowledge, Apple doesn’t support for example a Persian-language keyboard I don’t think. Now I think that was in fact because, if they can’t sell to Iran, why would they support the Persian language? So now I think you’ll get a lot more support and localization for the Persian language because a crime did not have to happen for something to get into Iran.
ICHRI: You said that you live in DC and you’ve worked on technology and access issues for a long time. How do you see ICHRI’s role within Washington, in terms of these kinds of efforts like the one to lift these sanctions?
CA: The positive role for organizations like the International Campaign [for Human Rights in Iran], which the Campaign has played specifically, is to have trusted organizations that people can turn to and not be concerned about partisanship. To understand that the concerns and frustrations that they’re expressing are based off of an understanding of what’s going on on the ground, and based off of this broader concern for human rights, and not necessarily political gains. So I think the best and constructive role that the International Campaign has always played is being a neutral role, third-party arbitrator.
ICHRI: What is the next step?
CA: I think that the attention has to be specifically paid now to the role of the companies. This is what is facing the banking sector, the medical goods sector, is that more and more the sanctions regime is embedded in non-governmental actors. So as much as we talk about this as a victory for civil society, as a victory for the Campaign, as a victory for everyone, the more that we need to understand that actually people in federal agencies took a risk in a certain sense, did something that was incredibly constructive and a really good example of how civil society is supposed to work, in terms of relating to how the administrative process works. And now that both of these two parts of society have done their part, now it’s up to the private companies. So as much as this is great, it’ll be kind of worthless if for example Google doesn’t stop blocking some of its services. We now have to have the expectation and we have to pay attention and we have to push, pull, and tug on private companies to actually act and not be censors of the Iranian public in the same way that the government is.
ICHRI: Are there things that civil society and organizations like ours and activists like you can do to educate private companies and advocate for Iranians to have real access to these tools?
CA: It requires people who care to be attached to the issue and to keep talking about it, and to use the moral authority of a situation in which the only person on the other side of Iranian human rights is the Iranian government. Everyone else is in the same boat. There’s no one who’s being a malicious actor, there’s just people who have concerns that still need to be addressed. The role of civil society is to either encourage them by making them understand the gravity of their actions or inactions at times, or to fix the policy-making process to address their concerns. The general license was based off of the fact that civil society went to companies and said, “There’s existing exemptions, why don’t you respect them?” and the companies said, “They’re not enough.” So government officials and civil society came up and found a new general license. Being that arbiter of a dialogue. International Campaign, activists, civil society—their responsibility is to always bring this up. For example, I was at an event, and there was a senior-level Google staff, and I brought it up at that event. And the staff jumped on it. It’s just making sure the issue doesn’t disappear.
There was this exemption for non-commercial goods that came out in 2010, and then it was clarified and updated in 2012. The biggest concern for people like me was that because there was this clarification everyone would assume that it was fixed and they would stop caring about it. That would be a really big failure if we saw this general license happen and we thought “OK, it must be fixed!” and no one follows through.