Six months ago, the world watched the Iranian people take to the streets to protest their country’s fraudulent presidential elections.
All over the world, people witnessed the events unfold in stunning detail through pictures and video clips captured on cell phones and distributed over the internet. Empowered by communication services like Twitter and Facebook, Iranians rapidly organized what became the first popular democratic uprising of the social media age.
And then almost simultaneously, we watched the Iranian government ruthlessly clamp down on the protests, spilling blood on the streets.
The Iranian government continues to demonstrate total disregard for the welfare of the Iranian people through its reckless nuclear campaign and repression of any semblance of civil society. It has increasingly turned to technological measures to stop democratic unrest, blocking access to the internet, shutting down reformist websites and infiltrating electronic social networks, among other actions.
While many Americas understand the role that social media services like Twitter and Facebook played in this summer’s election and continue to play in Iran today, few people know that current U.S. law prohibits the export or use of this technology to Iran. This is clearly not in keeping with our nation’s core principles of freedom of speech and information. Nor was it the intent of the law’s original authors. When Congress constructed the embargo more than three decades ago, Representative Howard Berman, who is now the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, passed an amendment that carved out an exception protecting the exchange of information and educational materials between the people of the U.S. and the private citizens of Iran.
Despite the clear intent of the Berman Amendment, as a consequence of increased enforcement of US sanctions on Iran due to their drive for nuclear development, many American companies have opted in recent years to withhold or cut off Iranian’s access to web communication services. Microsoft and Google have both shut down instant messenger services because their programs are enabled by a download not authorized for export to Iran under U.S. law. (The companies later reinstated the services, thanks to pressure by the public and lawmakers).
After extensive behind the scenes discussions with State and Treasury Department officials, I introduced a bipartisan bill to amend U.S. sanctions law to make explicit that the select export of software and services vital to communications and access to information in Iran be permissible. The Iranian Digital Empowerment Act (IDEA) H.R. 4301, will provide Iranians greater to access web-based technology, anti-censorship and anti-spying software necessary for circumventing the surveillance and control of the Iranian government.
The Obama Administration has since moved to adopt many of the recommendations in the bill regarding access to web-based information and communications tools by issuing a “waiver,” or exception, to current law. In a statement on December 15, 2009, the administration deemed that lifting U.S. prohibitions on the transfer of informational services and software to Iran is “essential to the national interest.”
I applaud the Administration’s move toward a new, smarter approach to U.S. sanctions policy. Those changes however, still need to be codified into law and the anti-censorship and spying software provisions from my legislation have yet to be enacted. Washington can take additional steps to help ensure that our sanctions on Iran are hitting the right target — the oppressive Iranian regime — and not its freedom loving people by making the IDEA Act law this Congress.
Rep. James Moran (D) is Virginia’s 8th Congressional District Representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.