Oct 28, 2022 - Technology

Exclusive: Lawmakers call on tech companies to aid Iranians

A protester holds up a note reading "Woman, Life, Freedom, #MahsaAmini" while marching down a street on October 1, 2022 in Tehran, Iran

A protester holds up a note reading "Woman, Life, Freedom, #MahsaAmini" while marching in Tehran, Iran. Photo: Getty Images.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers urged Google, Amazon Web Services and other tech companies Thursday to expand access to online tools and services for Iranian protestors after the U.S. Treasury Department relaxed restrictions last month.

Why it matters: Iranians protesting the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while she was in police custody are trying to evade internet disruptions and government restrictions of social media platforms.

Driving the news: A letter led by Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) calls on the companies to "provide expeditiously and lawfully the tools Iranians need to circumvent government blockages."

  • Those technologies include cloud and hosting services, messaging platforms and tools, developer and analytics tools, and access to app stores, according to the letter.
  • The letter was sent to leadership at Google, Amazon, Apple, Meta, Microsoft and Digital Ocean, a cloud infrastructure company.
  • It was signed by Reps. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.), María Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.), Albio Sires (D-N.J.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.), Andy Kim (D-N.J.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), and Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), and Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

What they're saying: Malinowski told Axios he's frustrated with tech companies' lack of action in Iran.

  • "The ball is really in their court now to deploy technologies that the U.S. government is permitting to ensure Iranians can actually communicate safely and securely," Malinowski said in an interview.
  • "We're not seeing nearly enough. Iranians are risking their lives, and these big companies seem to be unwilling to risk anything, and that's just wrong."

Catch up quick: Use of anti-online censorship tools has surged in Iran since the September death of Amini, who was in police custody for violating the country's mandatory head-scarf law.

  • The Treasury Department revised its sanction rules to allow tech companies more latitude in providing online tools and services political dissidents could use to circumvent the government's surveillance and censorship efforts.
  • Google said in September its Jigsaw subsidiary's open-source Outline tool saw a spike in demand from Iran after the sanctions were revised.
  • Outline allows third parties to set up secure virtual private networks that are resistant to disruption and censorship efforts.

The other side: Outline has seen 10x growth in users in Iran since the onset of protests, a Google spokesperson told Axios.

  • Google also launched location sharing on Maps locally in Iran in late September for anyone locally in Iran to allow people to share where they are. "We are also working on technical ways to ensure continued access to generally available communications tools like Google Meet and our other Internet services," the spokesperson said.
  • The Iran regime restricted access to Meta's Instagram and WhatsApp in September. Spokesperson Andy Stone said hashtags related to the protests in Iran were used more than 100 million times on Instagram around the world in the days since Amini's death,
  • Microsoft and Amazon also declined comment. Apple and Digital Ocean did not respond to requests seeking comment.
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