Two Cheers for the Treasury Department on Internet Freedom!

by on March 8, 2010 · 3 comments

The Treasury Department today announced that it would grant the State Department’s December request (see the Iran letter here) for a waiver from U.S. embargoes that would allow Iranians, Sudanese and Cubanese to download “free mass market software … necessary for the exchange of personal communications and/or sharing of information over the internet such as instant messaging, chat and email, and social networking.”

I’m delighted to see that the Treasury Department is implementing Secretary Clinton’s pledge to make it easier for citizens of undemocratic regimes to use Internet communications tools like e-mail and social networking services offered by US companies (which Adam discussed here). It has been no small tragedy of mindless bureaucracy that our sanctions on these countries have actually hampered communications and collaboration by dissidents—without doing anything to punish oppressive regimes. So today’s announcement is a great victory for Internet freedom and will go a long way to bringing the kind of free expression we take for granted in America to countries like Iran, Sudan and Cuba.

But I’m at a loss to explain why the Treasury Department’s waiver is limited to free software. The U.S. has long objected when other countries privilege one model of software development over another—and rightly so: Government should remain neutral as between open-source and closed-source, and between free and paid models. This “techno-agnosticism” for government is a core principle of cyber-libertarianism: Let markets work out the right mix of these competing models through user choice!

Why should we allow dissidents to download free “Web 2.0” software but not paid ones? Not all mass-market tools dissidents would find useful are free. Many “freemium” apps, such as Twitter client software, require purchase to get full functionality, sometimes including privacy and security features that are especially useful for dissidents. To take a very small example that’s hugely important to me as a user, Twitter is really only useful on my Android mobile phone because I run the Twidroid client. But the free version doesn’t support multiple accounts or lists, which are essential functions for a serious Tweeter. The Pro version costs just $4.89—but if I lived in Iran, U.S. sanctions would prevent me from buying this software. More generally, we just don’t know what kind of innovative apps or services might be developed that would be useful to dissidents, so why foreclose the possibility of supporting them through very small purchases?

If Treasury is worried about creating a loophole that could allow evasion of U.S. sanctions, surely there are better ways to prevent such abuse than simply continuing to ban even small software purchases, especially since the purchase price for freemium apps is often just a few dollars. Or the U.S. Government could even negotiate a blanket license for all downloads from embargoed countries with software developers to ensure that our export controls do not deny dissidents the best tools available.

The practictioners at Steptoe & Johnson asked some good questions about this proposal back in December when State sent their request to Treasury.

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