The Treasury Department has relaxed rules prohibiting tech companies from exporting internet services to Iran, Sudan, and Cuba, in an effort to leverage the exploding popularity of social networking into liberalizing these repressive regimes.

Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), Yahoo (YHOO), and other companies can now offer email, instant messaging, and other services to citizens in these three countries, where U.S. companies had been prohibited from doing business.

"Consistent with the Administration's deep commitment to the universal rights of all the world's citizens, the issuance of these general licenses will make it easier for individuals in Iran, Sudan, and Cuba to use the Internet to communicate with each other and with the outside world," Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin said in a statement.

The new rules represent an attempt by the Obama administration to align its trade policy with its new "proactive" stance aimed at using the internet to help open closed regimes, an initiative Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in January.

"The spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet," Clinton said. "On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for human freedom and progress. But the U.S. does. We need to synchronize our technological progress with our principles."

Monday's announcement appears aimed at doing just that. State Dept. spokesman P.J. Crowley said the relaxed rules "will help people in Iran, Sudan, Cuba use web-based chat services to better keep in touch with each other in the outside world."

Rationalizing Trade, Internet Freedom Policy

"This is wonderful news," says Omid Memarian, a prominent Iranian journalist and blogger now based in Berkeley, Calif. Last week, Memarian and Rebecca MacKinnon, a visiting fellow at Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy and an expert on the internet and authoritarian states, testified before Congress urging the policy changes.

"This will provide more access for Iranians," Memarian says. "Previously, if someone in Iran wanted to register a .com domain with GoDaddy, they had to use a fake name or go through a third-party country like Dubai. They could register an .ir domain, but those are really easy for the government to monitor."

MacKinnon also applauds the changes in trade policy that make it consistent with U.S. aims for internet freedom. "Given that the Obama administration is talking about how internet freedom is so important, we've got to weed out all the contradictions and hypocrisy if we're going to be taken seriously," says MacKinnon. "The existing regulations were conceived in era before individuals were using the web at all, and now they're actually harming activists."

As part of the new policy, the U.S. has issued general licenses that "authorize exports from the United States or by U.S. persons to persons in Iran and Sudan of services and software related to the exchange of personal communications over the Internet, including web browsing, blogging, email, instant messaging, and chat; social networking; and photo and movie sharing," according to the Treasury Department.

Activists Use Gadgets, Web to Fight Oppression

From Burma to Iran, protesters have used mobile technology and web networks to smuggle out images of violent crackdowns to Western eyes. Just last month, the formerly anonymous activist who captured the death of Iranian protester Neda Agha-Soltan won a prestigious Polk journalism award.

Of course, Iran, Cuba, and Sudan could simply choose to block the services, as China does. But that doesn't eliminate the need for the U.S to change the policy. "The point here is to eliminate barriers to people being able to express themselves," MacKinnon says. "It doesn't serve any good for these companies to be barred from reaching people in these countries."

Besides, she says, once the services are available, the onus shifts to the repressive government to block them. In essence, before the new policy, U.S. sanctions were actually helping authoritarian regimes withhold communications services from their citizens. Now that these services are available, enterprising activists will find a way around government censors, as they do in China, MacKinnon says.

"At least as long as it's not illegal for American companies to provide service to individuals in these countries, if you're technically savvy enough, there are ways to get around the blockers," MacKinnon says. "It's unrealistic to think any one policy will bring down any government overnight. There are things we can control and things we can't control, so let's start by getting right the things we can control."

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