State Department talks to Twitter but it should REALLY be talking to US Treasury
So there are reports that senior officials in the State Department have asked Twitter the company to postpone their maintenance to ensure that, as CNN puts it, "Iranians are able to continue to communicate to each other and the outside world." I am sure that over at the Foggy Bottom, they are all glued to ...
So there are reports that senior officials in the State Department have asked Twitter the company to postpone their maintenance to ensure that, as CNN puts it, "Iranians are able to continue to communicate to each other and the outside world." I am sure that over at the Foggy Bottom, they are all glued to computer screens, praying that Twitter et al will dispose them of the major headache that Ahmadinejad’s second term could be. Or, perhaps, the #iranelection tag on Twitter simply became too addictive for some of them and the prospect of a one-hour withdrawal is not very appealing.
In either case, I applaud their decision, even though I am doubtful that Twitter needed to hear from the State Department to postpone something that was already causing a major community stir. But, OK, let’s give them credit for this and move to more important questions about who else the State Department should talk to.
Today I was struck with the realization that I don’t really know if we would really be observing the same intensity of cyberactivity if Twitter were desktop-based rather than Web-based. Imagine if it were like MSN Messenger: to be able to use it, you needed to download a file and install it on your computer.
Well, if the comparison of Twitter with MSN Messenger is adequate, it means that the former would not be available to Iranians today! Just to remind you, MSN Messenger could not find a way around the tough licensing restrictions imposed by the U.S. government on software exports to the embargoed countries (of which Iran, is of course one). The end result is that MSN is no longer legally available for downloads in Iran.
Doesn’t this mean that if Twitter preserved all of its functionality but came as a desktop client it would have run into the same problems?
Now, I am very curious about the rules that govern the export of various Twitter apps like Twirl or TweetDeck (which, basically, ARE desktop version of Twitter) to Iran. More specifically, wouldn’t they fall under the same rules as MSN Messenger? It was never really clear to me whether those rules had anything to do with “strong encryption” – an excuse that has often been cited by Web hosting companies to avoid doing work with citizens of these embargoed countries – but let’s not get into such arcane legal matters for now. It would be very ironic if in the next few days these clients suddenly become unavailable to citizens of Iran; now, that would be an obstruction of the revolutionary spirit that we could probably live without.
The question that I have to the State Department is very simple: if they do have so much clout and energy and understanding of the Internet (and Twitter in particular), why wouldn’t they talk to their colleagues at U.S. Treasury and have them lift restrictions/unnecessarily cumbersome requirements on the use of any social media tools in the country? With all the clout that Hilary has in this administration, I am sure the State can convince the people running Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) about the very negative impact of the current legal framework regulating the export of software to Iran.
At minimum, can’t OFAC make an exception and waive any export (and hence download) restrictions for a week or so? I bet this would be extremely well-received by Iranian netizens who need all the support we can offer and would actually help us temporarily get rid of a completely irrelevant, counterproductive, and obsolete piece of legislature.
In this age, one would think that America would be doing its best to flood the Iranian Internet with tools that could help Iranians organize, use proxies, swap files and so forth. But no, instead, the U.S. is pushing on with its silly policies that have, alas, outlived their usefulness a decade ago.
Otherwise, all these calls on Twitter to postpone maintenance are simply aimed at generating additional publicity without forcing American diplomats to do any real work. So, let me really challenge the State Department folks reading this blog: why not use this crisis to finally put an end to restrictions on the export of tools that are widely used all over the world without causing any threat to national security?
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