US Allows Tech Firms, SpaceX’s Starlink To Expand Internet Services To Iran

The White House is responding to Iran’s efforts to restrict internet access by permitting tech companies to expand online services to the country. 

The Biden administration is doing so through a Treasury Dept. “General License” that permits(Opens in a new window) US tech companies to deliver communications services, such as social media apps, video conferencing software and even online gaming to Iran. The license effectively creates an exemption to the US’s strict sanctions against the country, which have previously barred technology sales. 

“We are taking this step against a stark backdrop,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement(Opens in a new window). “The Iranian government has cut off access to the internet for most of its 80 million citizens to prevent them —and the world— from watching its violent crackdown on peaceful protestors.”

One company already seems ready to serve users in Iran. On Friday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted(Opens in a new window) “Activating Starlink…” a reference to the company’s satellite internet service, which can supply high-speed broadband to many locations across the planet. Days earlier, Musk said he wanted to bring Starlink to Iran, tweeting: “Starlink will ask for an exemption to Iranian sanctions in this regard.” 

SpaceX didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, making it unclear how it’ll offer Starlink to the country and when. But the technology could provide local users to a way to bypass Iran’s strict online censorship, assuming they can get their hands on a Starlink dish.

In the meantime, Iran this week began restricting access to Instagram and WhatsApp, and shut down several cellular providers, according(Opens in a new window) to internet monitoring group NetBlocks. The country has also blocked the encrypted chat app Signal, which has been calling on(Opens in a new window) volunteers to create a workaround by establishing proxy servers. 

The crackdown occurs as Iran is facing growing anti-government protests, which began last week after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in Tehran under suspicious circumstances. According(Opens in a new window) to her family, Amini was arrested for wearing a hijab improperly and then beaten by Iran’s “morality police,” which led to her death. However, local police claim she merely suffered from a heart attack. 

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The protests in Iran have triggered violent clashes with government forces. More than 30 people have been killed while hundreds have been injured, according(Opens in a new window) to The Washington Post

“As courageous Iranians take to the streets to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, the United States is redoubling its support for the free flow of information to the Iranian people,” said Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo on Friday. The department also hinted it could create further exemptions in the Iran sanctions to help ensure the free flow of information within the country.

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