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US spreads Web2.0rhea to Iran, Sudan, Cuba

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US citizens are now free to invite Iranian, Sudanese, and Cuban citizens into the Web2.0rhea revolution.

The US Treasury Department's trade sanction management body, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), announced on Monday that it was amending regulations that had prevented US citizens from exporting internet-based communications software and services to Iran, Sudan, and Cuba.

Licenses can now be granted that allow exports of software and services which enable private citizens in those three countries to engage in private activities such as email, instant messaging, chat, web browsing, social networking, blogging and photo and movie sharing.

"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," said Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin in a prepared statement.

If you surmise that the recent Twitterification of Iranian protests helped inspire Monday's easing of export rules, you'd be correct. "As recent events in Iran have shown," said Wolin, "personal Internet-based communications like email, instant messaging and social networking are powerful tools. This software will foster and support the free flow of information - a basic human right - for all Iranians."

But the revised regulations don't allow for a wide-open software surge to the three-country Axis of Disagreeableness. The OFAC's 21-page ruling (pdf) specifically states that licenses will be issued only on a case-by-case basis and only for services and software "incident to the sharing of information over the Internet".

And those exports won't go to the minions of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, or Raul Castro. The new regulations prohibit the export of software or services to those overlords, their governments, or - in the case of the US's Caribbean bête noire - to "a prohibited member of the Cuban Communist Party".

In addition, the new regulations require that the software be used only for services that are "publicly available at no cost to the user".

Although supporting tweets about repressive governments might seem to be striking a blow for the little guy, it's unclear exactly how important these new regulations will be. Although Iran has a high degree of internet participation due to its rising middle class - nearly half of its population are internet users, according to Internet World Stats - Cuba has about 1.45 million internet users among its 11 million–plus souls, and Sudan has about the same percentage, with 4.2 million users among its population of 41 million.

Whether or not Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, and YouTube can save the world from neofascism, the new OFAC regs do illustrate the Obama administration's focus on internet freedom. Recently, in a wide-ranging speech on matters webby, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "Countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of Internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century."

Clinton's remarks were aimed most specifically at China, but she also rapped the knuckles of Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. In addition, although Clinton did emphasize freedom of communications, her remarks had a decidedly business bent. "Countries that censor news and information must recognize that from an economic standpoint, there is no distinction between censoring political speech and commercial speech," she said. "If businesses in your nation are denied access to either type of information, it will inevitably reduce growth."

Although Monday's OFAC announcement was couched in terms of individual and collective freedom, Clinton's argument had a more materialistic moral: squashing the internet is bad business.

Not that we here at The Reg are hardened cynics, but our money is on the financial argument. ®

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