THE BLOG
11/16/2012 04:36 pm ET | Updated Jan 16, 2013

U.S. Crackdown on Internet Censorship Comes at Critical Time

Longtime opponents to Internet censorship were glad to see the Obama Administration enforce new human rights rules involving Iran last week. The State Department announced sanctions against four individuals and five entities, including Iran's communications and technology minister Reza for actions that censored access to the Internet and other actions that blocked freedom of expression.

The sanctions mean these individuals and entities will have their U.S. assets frozen and U.S. entities can't do business with them. Designated individuals and members of designated entities cannot travel to the U.S.

The U.S. action against censorship in Iran comes as part of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syrian Human Rights Act of 2012, which President Obama signed in August as well as another executive order.

A State Department spokeswoman says the goal of the policies against censorship are aimed at preventing the Iranian government from creating an "iron curtain" to cut its citizens off from the rest of the world.

My tech trade association, CCIA, is pleased to see the Obama Administration's commitment to fighting Internet censorship. Iran had shut down email access to Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo!, as well as Facebook back in February and blocked some email access again this fall. Iran has blocked YouTube since 2009 when those protesting the election posted videos of their protests.

The State Department's action is a milestone in that it has expressly included "restricting Internet connectivity" as a form of sanctionable censorship that "prohibit(s), limit(s), or penalize(s) the exercise of freedom of expression or assembly by citizens of Iran." Opposition to Internet censorship has been affirmed as part of the historic U.S. commitment to promote freedom equal to such efforts as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty during the Cold War.

This first foreign policy announcement of the administration's second term comes after key actions against censorship in its first term. It denounced Egypt's Internet shutdown last year as well as Congress' Stop Online Piracy Act this year. The Commerce Department also asked for U.S. companies to report cases where other governments are demanding they censor or filter the Internet.

During the first term, the USTR successfully opposed China's plan to ensure all imported computers sold in China had pre-installed Internet-filtering software, and USTR negotiators have helped keep secondary liability provisions that would lead to Internet services self-censoring the Internet out of the new trade agreement now under negotiation, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

This record of clear, consistent opposition to Internet censorship is especially important as countries that support freedom of expression face proposals by countries like Iran, China and Russia at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai next month. These Internet restricting countries are hoping to gain more international governmental control over the Internet through the UN's International Telecommunications Union.

Europe, the U.S., and a number of other countries are lobbying against these additional Internet regulations, and trying to explain to all the countries,of the world which have a vote, that proposals enabling censorship are unwise and counterproductive. Some of the proposals are enmeshed in language that appears to address legitimate concerns such as cyber security and national security, but are really intended to give Internet restricting countries cover to further censor Internet access.

CCIA has long asserted that the Internet can be an incredibly effective tool for informing and inspiring the people of countries (such as Iran) with undemocratic regimes as well as for economic advancement. Not only can it provide information and stimulate innovation, but it can also encourage people to participate in the discussion and formulation of democratic ideas. Internet freedom can nurture economic development as well as the development of democracy by encouraging political awareness. A vibrant, un-shackled Internet provides economic and political empowerment and opportunities.

For years, CCIA has called on the U.S. government to elevate the issue of Internet censorship to the top of our diplomatic agenda, and to make censoring governments understand the depth of the U.S. commitment to it. This State Department action involving Iran and their leadership in opposing further UN regulation are steps in the right direction.

We commend the administration for going beyond simply condemning Iran's censorship and actually designating specific Iranian officials and entities for sanctions. This naming of those responsible for censorship can have the effect of engendering a sense of accountability where previous generic criticisms of government action could not. We look forward to expanding our global agenda in this area.