After the Iranian military mistakenly shot down a passenger jet last week, killing all on board including 57 Canadians, residents in Edmonton did what well-wishers often do in wake of 21st-century crises: They launched GoFundMe drives for victims.
But the California-based crowdfunding company suspended at least two fundraisers for Iranian-Canadian families affected by the crash, likely slashing the funds they’d be able to raise.
The reason? U.S. sanctions on Iran.
“Occasionally in the wake of crises like the tragic plane crash, we require additional information from campaign organizers to ensure funds go to the right place,” GoFundMe spokesperson Caitlin Stanley said. “[I]t is because the tragic event took place in a sanctioned country.”
Instagram similarly cited U.S. sanctions when censoring certain content in the wake of the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani earlier this month, highlighting how the complex web of American sanctions on Iran is largely open to interpretation by Silicon Valley.
That pressure from the U.S., coupled with an Iranian regime that has cracked down on social media and pushed homemade internet services it can control, has led many tech firms like Amazon, Apple, and others to restrict access in the country. It’s drastically reoriented how Iranians are able to communicate with one another and the outside world.
‘A blunt instrument’
“Sanctions are a very blunt instrument and it’s very hard to craft them in a way in the 21st century, when everyone is connected, so they don’t have these spillover effects,” said Ryan Costello, policy director for the National Iranian American Council.
GoFundMe also reinstated the two fundraisers for Canadian victims of the plane crash after verifying the funds wouldn’t go to individuals covered under sanctions. While there are legal guidelines for charitable donations to Iranians, the GoFundMe drives in question explicitly aimed to benefit Iranian-Canadians. The confusion still held up the fundraisers.
“Usually it’s left to in-house counsel of these tech companies to determine what they can and can’t do with U.S. sanctions,” said Mohsen Zarkesh, an attorney who focuses on sanctions law for the Washington-based firm Price Benowitz, LLP. “There’s definitely more leeway for tech companies in dealing with Iran compared to, say, the financial sector or trade.”
Those decisions are crucial in shaping how conflict with Iran plays out in real-time. Social media users across the Middle East have shared popular outcry and propaganda alike since the American assassination of Soleimani. President Donald Trump has since warned the regime against shutting down the internet like it did during violent crackdowns on public protests in November.
But the Silicon Valley companies that dominate the internet have tended to approach the country with extreme caution in recent years. Apple blocked Iranian users from the App store in 2018. Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, and GitHub have similarly slashed access in the country, cutting off key infrastructure for web hosting and development. (Amazon and Google have also recently vied for multibillion-dollar U.S. defense contracts.)
Richard Nephew, the lead sanctions expert for the Obama administration team negotiating with the country, told VICE News that while U.S. companies are prohibited from providing services to sanctioned individuals or entities, defining “services” in terms of media or communication is more difficult.
“It is a pretty serious gray area that often times can be subject to over-interpretation and, indeed, under-interpretation!”
“It is a pretty serious gray area that often times can be subject to over-interpretation and, indeed, under-interpretation!” he wrote in an email.
On Friday, the nonprofit publication Coda first reported that Instagram was removing certain posts mentioning Soleimani and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including from state-aligned news outlets and human-rights activists. The Facebook-owned platform is among the few still available to Iranians without a VPN, though the regime polices it aggressively.
“We review content against our policies and our obligations to US sanctions laws, specifically those related to the US government’s designation of the IRGC and its leadership as a terrorist organization,” a Facebook spokesperson told VICE News. She added that the U.S. government has asked Facebook to take action against specific Iranian accounts in the past but declined to provide details.
The spokesperson said that Facebook reviewers with Arabic and Farsi language expertise evaluated the content based on whether it sought to represent, encourage, or otherwise further Soleimani or the IRGC’s goals. She acknowledged that making those calls is squishy, adding that Instagram has since restored some content upon appeal. That included posts from Iranian journalist and activist Emadeddin Baghi, who had written that Soleimani’s assassination ran “contrary to the principles of international law.”
Some First Amendment experts have since said that Facebook misinterpreted its legal obligations to police speech related to sanctioned individuals.
“Companies over-comply on this all the time,” said Jillian York, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's director for international freedom of expression. “The penalties are huge.”
There is some legal room for Iranians to use U.S. platforms to communicate with one another and the outside world. Instituted in 2014, one key carveout allows for Americans to export to Iran “Certain Services, Software, and Hardware Incident to Personal Communications.”
But tech platforms have changed dramatically since then, expanding globally at breakneck speeds.
At the same time, the Iranian regime has aggressively censored social media and other digital tools. Facebook and Twitter have been banned since 2009, and the government has at various points restricted the likes of Google and the messaging app Telegram.
The regime has instead pushed citizens toward internet services that have its approval, if not outright backing. The upshot is more opportunities for state surveillance and less political freedom for internet users inside the country.
“If you use this network, they can disrupt you,” said Amir Rashidi, a digital rights researcher based in New York, who argued that U.S. sanctions should be updated to increase openness. “We have to do something to make the cost of an internet shutdown much higher for the Iranian government. The only way to do that is to improve access to the international infrastructure.”
Cover: People hold smartphones in their hands while walking outside along a street in the Iranian capital Tehran on November 23, 2019. (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)