The White House is responding to Iran’s efforts to limit Internet access by allowing tech companies to expand online services into the country.
The Biden administration is doing this through a Treasury Department “general license” that allows US tech companies to ship communications services like social media apps, video conferencing software and even online games to Iran. The license effectively creates an exception to the country’s stringent US sanctions, which have previously prevented technology sales.
“We are taking this step against a stark backdrop,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. “The Iranian government has shut down most of its 80 million citizens from the internet to prevent them – and the world – from observing their violent crackdown on peaceful protesters.”
A company already seems ready to serve users in Iran. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on Friday tweeted “Activating Starlink…” is a reference to the company’s satellite internet service, which can deliver high-speed broadband to many locations around the world. Days earlier, Musk had said he wanted to bring Starlink to Iran, tweeting, “Starlink will request an exemption from Iranian sanctions in this regard.”
SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment, making it unclear how and when Starlink will offer it to the country. But the technology could offer local users a way to bypass Iran’s strict online censorship, provided they can get their hands on one Starlink dish.
Meanwhile, this week Iran began restricting access to Instagram and WhatsApp and shutting down several mobile operators. according to to the internet surveillance group NetBlocks. The country has also blocked encrypted chat app Signal, which is calling on volunteers to create a workaround by setting up proxy servers.
The crackdown comes as Iran faces mounting anti-government protests that began last week after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in suspicious circumstances in Tehran. According to her family, Amini was arrested for improperly wearing a hijab and then beaten by Iran’s “morality police,” resulting in her death. However, local police claim she merely suffered a heart attack.
The protests in Iran have triggered violent clashes with government troops. More than 30 people were killed and hundreds injured The Washington Post.
“As courageous Iranians take to the streets to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, the United States is doubling down on its support for the free flow of information to the Iranian people,” Deputy Finance Minister Wally Adeyemo said on Friday. The department also hinted that it could create more exemptions from Iran sanctions to ensure the free flow of information within the country.