Iranians will soon have a new tool at their disposal to broadcast their protests and their government's repression to the outside world. Voice of America announced last week that it will unveil a new application for iPhone and Android mobile devices that will enable Iranians to upload videos, photos and other content to the VOA's Persian News Network. The app will be available for download on VOA's website, as well as through VOA's Twitter and Facebook accounts, and even from the Apple store.
This development may seem minor given that Iranians are already using camera phones and Twitter accounts to funnel information to the outside world. But the significance is that, until a recent policy shift, it has been illegal for American software to go to Iran -- meaning that the Iranian uprising, which itself could be described as an open source movement, has been denied access to some of the most innovative communication and networking software available due to obsolete U.S. policies.
Even as Iranians have broadcast their protests over the last seven months -- snapping and uploading photos of brutal government repression to Facebook, circulating names via Twitter of innocent Iranians secretly detained in sweeps -- and even as US policymakers have called for the Obama Administration to do more to support the Iranian protesters -- it has been official US policy to block Iranians from accessing the very software that helped enable them to share their movement with world.
The old policy was a perfect example of what happens when targeted measures are eschewed for broad, indiscriminate sanctions. While it may make sense for the US to deny the Iranian government technology it uses for nefarious purposes like blocking Iranians from accessing the Internet, US sanctions have been so broad that, in the same stroke, they also denied the Iranian people the software to access the Internet in the first place.
But in mid-December, the Obama Administration, along with Members of Congress, announced that this would change. On December 15, the Administration stated that it was working to draft new rules to longer stand in the way of communications software going to the Iranian people. Just prior to the announcement, the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act was introduced in Congress, which, if passed, will codify the elimination of these harmful restrictions into law.
Now, as a result, the first iPhone app will soon be introduced providing new ways for Iranians to connect with the world. And thousands of application developers will no longer be blocked from writing software that can provide innovative ways to strengthen social networks and Internet communications in Iran.
The impact that this particular VOA app will have is yet to be seen; iPhone and Android developers have created apps that to do everything from the useful -- such as an app that alerts users of upcoming speed traps on the freeway -- to the not so useful -- like the "knock on wood" app that provides a virtual piece of wood to rap on. But what's more important than the application itself is that it represents a new paradigm and may be the first in a flurry of new tools available for Iranians.
When the protests began in Iran, the US had few chips to play and there appeared to be little Washington could do to express support without undermining the opposition. But nearly seven months after the stolen election that sparked for the Iranian uprising, the opposition has increased in numbers and diversity, covering broadening swaths of the population. President Obama's approach of "bearing witness" and speaking out in increasingly strong terms on human rights continues to be vindicated. But even this approach would not be possible if not for Iranians' access to Twitter, Facebook, and communication software, which the December 15 policy shift and the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act recognize.
The Administration has recognized that the US does not need to merely express support, it needs to get out of the way. The US government has been in the business of sanctions for so long, many did not realize that it could actually take a step back and allow Iran's rulers to fall on their own sword.
What is happening in Iran is a movement by Iranians for Iranians. The removal of U.S. barriers to free communication by Iranians represents a new crack in the crumbling wall of Iranian repression -- a wall that the US inadvertently helped support through broad, sloppy sanctions, but from which we should now step back and allow to crumble.