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Removing Internet Sanctions: Greater Web Access for Iranians?

On March 21st, the United States Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced new guidelines lifting restrictions impacting Iranian Internet use and accessing software for personal use; software, such as messengers, browsers, plug-ins, flash player, etc. The complete list can be found here.

After the new guidelines were published, Persian-language media outlets began reporting on the news, covering it as a positive step for internet users in Iran, though Internet users themselves, both within and without Iran, gave little to no reaction to the news. The new guidelines weren’t even covered in IT blogs.

The lack of any strong reactions to the OFAC guidelines by Iranian Internet users comes as no surprise, given the fact that savvy Internet users had already found ways to bypass the limitations years ago. For example, when the sanctions were put in place prohibiting American companies from providing their services to those living in Iran, numerous websites began popping up to download messengers, browsers, or for uploading at other websites, allowing Iranians to download what they need without running into problems. Additionally, given Iran’s heavy Internet filtering, Iranians have become accustomed to using VPNs and proxy servers which allow bypassing sanctions imposed on them by American companies.

Contrary to the coverage and attention the new guidelines received in Persian language news outlets, the easing of the sanctions does not greatly impact Iranians when it comes to accessing the Internet. It could be said, however, that it is a positive step towards removing the other sanctions still in place, sanctions that continuing to create problems for Iranian’s on the web. For example, contrary to current belief, the sanctions in place relating to anti-virus software, an absolute necessity when it comes to cyber safety, are still in place, as are sanctions relating to VPNs. It should be kept in mind that the use of VPNs is ubiquitous in Iran- an absolute necessity for anyone who wants to use the Internet in Iran. Iranians are still cut off from the Android market, even while unofficial statistics show that the numbers of cell phone users equipped with Android capabilities is growing rapidly, making it the most popular cell phone system in Iran.

On the other hand, OFAC also announced that access to Google advertisement systems such as AdWords or AdSense are only allowed for Iranian companies working outside of Iran. These companies are permitted access to these Google services after the American government vets the company, meaning that the easing of the sanctions has no direct effect or benefit for bloggers or anyone in the Persian-language webosphere within Iran.

Overall, the new guidelines issued by OFAC change little in terms of the existing realities for a person accessing the Internet in Iran. Aothough perceptions regarding the easing of sanctions are positive, this is mostly symbolic, and not much positive impact will be felt for Iranians browsing the web. It does, however, lay the groundwork for lifting other harmful sanctions that affect Iranians who are already experiencing extreme pressures from two sides: the Iranian government that continues to censor the Internet through the use of filters, and pressure from the impacts of US sanctions which oblige Western companies to prevent Iranians from accessing the web like any other Internet user.



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