A License to Chat

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) should clarify its position regarding the legality of Microsoft's offering its instant messenger service within Iran. As a result of ambiguities within OFAC's guidelines on Iran sanctions, Microsoft Corporation voluntarily withdrew its Windows Live Messenger program from Iran in late 2008. Preventing such a potentially valuable resource from being downloaded does not inhibit the Iranian government from accomplishing any of its goals, but it does impede the ability of ordinary Iranians to communicate. One solution is simple and effective: OFAC's director should issue a general license to Microsoft to allow Windows Live Messenger to be made immediately available to the Iranian people.

According to OFAC's guidelines on sanctions for Iran, "the receipt or transmission of postal, telegraphic, telephonic or other personal communications, which does not involve the transfer of anything of value, between the United States and Iran is authorized." In addition, "informational materials" such as films, tapes, compact discs, and news wire feeds are also allowed. From these and other similar items on OFAC's list, it is reasonable to assume that online messenger services should be allowed, since they clearly fall under the "personal communications" and "informational materials" rubrics.

Microsoft explains, however, that though the "personal communications" aspect of Windows Live Messenger is authorized, the downloadable software required for operating the service is not. Windows Live Messenger falls between two seemingly contradictory policies: on the one hand, Messenger is used for personal communication, and is therefore allowed. On the other hand, using Messenger requires that the program's relevant "valuable" software be downloaded. Microsoft is nervous about the potential legal liability for carrying out activities in Iran, and has therefore decided to err on the side of caution, and understandably so.

Windows Live Messenger is of negligible value to those groups -- the Iranian government and military -- which are the targets of U.S. sanctions. Allowing Windows Live Messenger to be available in Iran would not benefit the government. Even if Iranian authorities access the programming code that runs Windows Live Messenger, it will not provide the government with any sensitive, or even particularly useful, technology. Messenger's true value lies in its ability to facilitate the Iranian peoples' communication with each other and the outside world--something they desperately need.

Social networking services greatly enhanced the organizing and communications abilities of the Iranian opposition movements both during and after June's disputed election. The U.S. government has acknowledged the utility of social networking sites for the Iranian democracy movement. The State Department asked Twitter to postpone a scheduled maintenance shutdown due to its prominent use in the post-election protests. The U.S. government viewed Twitter as facilitating personal communication and informational material.

What is more, there is no more basic founding principle of the United States than the notion that individual freedoms must be promoted and protected. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution both present the construction of a free society as the most important foundational principle of the United States. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin once said, "Where liberty dwells, there is my country." A belief that people, regardless of nationality, should be allowed to organize, speak and generally conduct their lives as they see fit is at the center of American domestic and foreign policy. Consequently, it is only consistent with American values and ideals to promote these same freedoms to people around the globe who need them most.

By hewing to the letter, rather than the spirit of US sanctions, OFAC is unintentionally aiding President Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Khamenei and the IRGC in their efforts to limit the ability of the Iranian people to organize demonstrations and communicate with the rest of the global community. Limiting the ability of citizens to communicate is one of most effective tools that totalitarian governments have for controlling the flow of information and preventing opposition movements from gaining supporters.

President Obama, referring to the Iranian election in June, said "The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights." It is time for the U.S. government to stand with the Iranian people not only through rhetoric but also action. An important symbol of U.S. support would be to state unequivocally that anything that helps the Iranian people speak out against repression has the support of the US Government.