April 14, 2010 | Washington Times

U.S. to ease sanctions on software

The Obama administration said Monday it will ease some sanctions on Iran, Sudan and Cuba to allow U.S. exports of social-media software to help those countries’ citizens “circumvent” government censorship.

The Treasury Department’s decision to grant licenses to Google, Microsoft and other companies followed a request by the State Department, which cited national-interest reasons in seeking waivers from existing laws.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has spearheaded the administration’s efforts to promote Internet freedom around the world, said Washington’s move is aimed at making it possible for people to “have other sources of information about what is going on inside their country.”

“We are going to continue to support those Iranians who wish to circumvent and be able to communicate without being blocked by their own government,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters when asked specifically about the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“We believe that Iran calls itself a democracy. It should act like one, and that means respecting the right to free expression and assembly of its own people,” she said. “And in the 21st century, expression and assembly are carried out on the Internet, as well as in person.”

The sanctions waiver would allow downloads of software for Web browsing, blogging, e-mail, instant messaging, chatting, social networking and photo and movie sharing, the Treasury said.

“Today’s actions will enable Iranian, Sudanese and Cuban citizens to exercise their most basic rights,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Neil S. Wolin said in a statement.

It was not clear what the practical benefit of the decision will be for people in the affected countries, given that their governments can easily ban or restrict access to the software at issue, as do authorities in China, for example.

Mrs. Clinton did not answer that question, but U.S. officials said there are ways to go around official censorship, which is why the secretary used the word “circumvent.”

Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, called Monday’s decision a very important interagency policy statement by the administration, and the first time it has provided “material support for the pro-democracy Green Movement” in Iran — “the only thing that has so far rattled the regime.”

“Support for the Green Movement — through the provision of critical communications technology combined with crippling energy sanctions — may well be too little too late to throttle the regime’s nuclear aspirations,” he said. “But we are fooling ourselves if we believe that what we’ve done so far will stop the Islamic republic’s quest for the bomb.”

For years, Tehran’s nuclear program has been a source of tensions with the West, which fears that Iran is trying to build a weapon under the disguise of a civilian effort. Mr. Dubowitz said Iran was more willing to negotiate following the massive protests after the disputed presidential election in June.

“Now is the time for President Obama to rally Americans and Europeans to the cause of Iranian democracy,” he said. If the regime manages “to crush the opposition, we will have lost an enormous opportunity to bring some normality and hope to the Middle East.”

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