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Google Welcomes U.S. Easing Of Internet Export Rules For Iran, Others

An Internet cafe in Tehran
Internet giant Google has welcomed a U.S. decision to relax restrictions that have prevented U.S. companies from exporting Internet services and software to Iran, Cuba, and Sudan.

The U.S. Treasury Department eased the sanctions on March 8, allowing U.S. companies to export services to those countries that are related to Internet communication.

The move is aimed at fostering more open societies by making it easier for tech savvy citizens to circumvent information blockades by browsing the Internet, writing blogs or e-mailing, chatting and social networking -- as well as to share photos and video.

The governments in Tehran, Havana, and Khartoum all exert varying degrees of control over the Internet -- and are expected to continue to do so. The U.S. move doesn't change rigid information and Internet control laws in any of the countries.

But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the easing of sanctions was aimed at opening an information floodgate into repressive societies like Iran by allowing U.S. firms to provide the technology without violating U.S. law.

"With regard to Internet freedom," Clinton said, "we are supporting the right of free expression and have granted licenses or are in the process of granting licenses to companies that wish to provide Internet tools to citizens of Iran so that they can communicate -- so that they can have other sources of information about what is going on inside their country."

Skirting Blockade

Clinton said Washington hoped the move would give ordinary Iranians more options to circumvent Tehran's information blockade -- making it much more difficult for the agents of censorship in Tehran to keep their people from sharing ideas and information.

"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 -- and in the 21st century, expression and assembly are carried out on the Internet as well as in person," Clinton said. "So we're going to continue to support those Iranians who wish to circumvent and be able to communicate without being blocked by their own government."

Certain services from major Internet companies -- like Google's "Gmail" e-mail program -- already are used in Iran. But Google and other companies have, themselves, blocked access to other services for fear of violating U.S. laws that ban commerce with blacklisted countries.

The lifting of sanctions would allow companies like Microsoft and Yahoo to allow users in Iran, Cuba and Sudan to use instant messaging over the Internet -- a service they did not provide in the past because of those fears.

Washington has declared Internet freedom as a fundamental principle in American foreign policy since the chaotic days after June elections in Iran -- when video sharing sites like Google's YouTube and social networks like Facebook and Twitter were used by Iranians to organize protests and inform the rest of the world about brutal government crackdowns on demonstrators.

Last month, in an effort to prevent the organization of antigovernment protests before the 31st anniversary of Iran's Islamic revolution, authorities in Tehran imposed technical limitations which made it difficult for many Iranians to get access to their Gmail accounts.

Spurring Innovation?

Bill Echikson, Google's spokesman for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, told RFE/RL today that the firm welcomes the move by the U.S. Treasury.

"We're very happy with the decision of the U.S. Treasury Department because it will allow the export of Internet communications software and services to Iran and other nations where freedom of expression is limited," Echikson said. "We've long advocated the ability to provide citizens of these countries the tools with which to communicate with each other and the world. So what we will be doing now is to exploring how we might provide our communications products into these areas."

Echikson said it was too early to name specific software or technologies that Google would introduce for users in Iran as a result of the lift on sanctions.

But Robert Boorstin, head of Google's communications division, spoke briefly today about some of Google's activities and plans during a human rights forum in Switzerland -- the Geneva Summit for Human Rights Tolerance, and Democracy.

Boorstin told the forum that Google has sponsored conferences allowing activists to get together and talk about the latest methods authoritarian regimes are using to block access to the Internet -- as well as developments on how to circumvent information blockades.

"We have engineers who are quite interested in this and work on it in their spare time -- in addition to working on various tools that the company is interested in," Boorstin said. "It's not something that I really, frankly, want to talk about publicly -- for obvious reasons."

Boorstin mentioned investments that Google has made to build up the global Internet infrastructure. That includes being the partial funder of a new undersea cable into east Africa. It also includes developments on mobile telephone software and, critically, a major satellite project aimed at increasing Internet access for people in remote areas of developing countries.

"We have invested in a satellite network that at some point in the future -- it is several years off -- should provide for much better connectivity in places where there are no landlines," Boorstin said. "And we are very high on that possibility,... the potential for satellites to help people connect."

written by Ron Synovitz based on RFE/RL and wire reports