Locked out: Why is Amazon blocking Iranians from its services?

Critics say tech giants are overcomplying with US sanctions by blocking accounts held by ordinary Iran-based users.

Amazon Web Services Logo
Cloud-computing platform Amazon Web Services is not the only corner of the tech giant's empire that Iran-based users say they have difficulty accessing [File: Carlos Jasso/Illustration/Reuters]

In early August, Iranians took to Twitter to report that they had received emails from Amazon Web Services (AWS) informing them that their accounts had been disabled in compliance with United States government sanctions and export control regulations.

For those trying to conduct individual and business transactions in an economy under siege from sanctions, the loss of AWS is a potentially crippling blow.

AWS, a subsidiary of US tech giant Amazon.com, Inc, provides an array of “cloud” computing services over the internet to individuals, companies and governments.

And it is not the only corner of Amazon’s global empire where Iran-based users have felt unwelcome.

Ordinary consumers in Iran are unable to order things from Amazon’s online retail shops. In early June, an Iranian user of Amazon’s Goodreads, a social networking site where book enthusiasts share reading lists and reviews, tweeted that his account had been disabled.

Even Persian language books are shut out of Amazon’s services empire. Kindle Direct Publishing, a popular platform for authors to self-publish their work and “reach millions of readers on Amazon” according to its website, does not support manuscripts written in Farsi, also known as Persian.

Some estimates put the number of Farsi speakers globally at around 100 million people, with the largest cohort in Iran, and sizeable concentrations in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

The litany of restrictions underscores how a corporate giant’s efforts to not fall afoul of US sanctions are tightening the noose on ordinary Iranians who already face domestic barriers to their online activities.

Because Iran is subject to broad trade restrictions, limiting virtually all business with Iran, we do not serve customers in that country.

by Amazon spokesperson

Cut off from the free and open web

Some of Amazon’s restrictions on Iran-based users predate the 2015 deal with world powers that lifted multilateral sanctions in exchange for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear programme. But they have widened in scope since US President Donald Trump‘s decisions last year to unilaterally withdraw the US from the nuclear deal and launch a “maximum pressure” campaign that has seen successive rounds of punishing economic sanctions slapped on Tehran.

The US Department of the Treasury says sanctions target the “Iranian regime”, not ordinary individuals.

In July, the US Department of State addressed charges that sanctions are harming ordinary Iranians in a video featuring US Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook. “The United States does not sanction hardware, software or services related to personal communications,” said Hook. “Unlike your regime, we believe strongly in the free flow of communication and information.”

But critics point out that the AWS restrictions on Iran-based users are heaping more pain on average individuals who already face obstacles to online freedom of expression at home – including having their servers filtered and sometimes blocked by the government.

“If you ban all the Iranian developers from using AWS, and then other cloud companies follow suit, then where the heck are they supposed to run their proxies and VPN [virtual private network] servers to bypass censorship and access the free and open web?” one person tweeted.

That tweet prompted a response from former US National Security Agency contractor turned whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who tweeted, “You might not know it, but Amazon runs basically half the internet on their cloud platform. Now they’re cutting off the lifeline of Iran’s liberal opposition in a misguided attempt to please – far beyond what the law requires – one of Amazon’s biggest customers: the US Government.”

Amazon, however, maintains that it is only adhering to the law.

“We comply with all applicable laws in the countries in which we operate, including any international sanctions and other restrictions that may be in place for certain countries,” an AWS spokesperson told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement. “Because Iran is subject to broad trade restrictions, limiting virtually all business with Iran, we do not serve customers in that country.”

Amazon has shown caution previously when dealing with Iran.

In 2017, the company disclosed in a US Securities and Exchange Commission filing that it had sold products to an Iranian embassy, as well as doing business with others with links to the Iranian government, between January 2012 and June 2017, and that it had “voluntarily reported these orders to the United States Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and the United States Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security”.

Access denied

Amazon is not the only US tech giant that has hobbled Iran-based accounts.

In late July 2019, the largest global software code-hosting service – GitHub, home to roughly 30 million software developers from around the world – started limiting users from Iran.

The move drew fire from some members of the tech community for impeding the free flow of information. In the wake of such criticisms, the company rolled back some of the initial restrictions.

With that ban, GitHub joined a long list of US-based firms – including Google, Apple and Slack – that have placed limits on users based in Iran.

Even users who used to live in Iran or have merely visited the country have taken to social media to report that they have been caught in the dragnet targeting Iran-based users.

They can appeal restrictive measures by providing documents that prove they are no longer based in Iran.

There is a provision in US law aimed at preventing ordinary Iranians who harness online services from getting swept up in punitive economic measures targeting the government.

In 2014, the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued General License D-1 authorising the exportation or reexportation of fee-based services from the US or by a US person to Iran. This encompassed software and hardware involving personal communications over the internet.

“This is a very fact-dependent inquiry, but in my experience, some of these service providers may simply view the task of figuring out what Iranians can and cannot access too onerous an inquiry to merit its attention,” said Tyler Cullis, an attorney at Ferrari & Associates, a Washington-based firm that specialises in OFAC sanctions.

“As a result, it denies Iranian users access even to services that are permissible under General License D-1,” Cullis told Al Jazeera.

The general licence also says certain licences can be issued on “case-by-case basis” for personal communications-related services, software and hardware not specified in the document.

Al Jazeera asked Amazon whether the company had sought specific licences to mitigate impacts on non-government users. The company did not respond to the question.

...most entities are backing away from Iran due to fears that they will be ensnarled by the aggressive sanctions policy.

by Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council

‘A chilling effect’

The Washington-based nonprofit National Iranian American Council says it has urged multiple White House administrations, including the Trump administration, to take measures to ensure US policies do not undermine the ability of ordinary Iranians to access goods and services that support freedom of expression.

“There remain some vagaries in the communications technology exemptions that should be addressed, and we have urged for a clarification and broader expansion of the exemptions,” NIAC President Jamal Abdi told Al Jazeera.

“Unfortunately, we have not seen tangible efforts to make this a practical reality. Maximum pressure has been an all-or-nothing approach that has created a chilling effect in which most entities are backing away from Iran due to fears that they will be ensnarled by the aggressive sanctions policy”.

According to Abdi, since commercial services are still sanctioned, companies like Amazon face the choice of either vetting every single Iranian service hosted on their platforms to ensure it is not commercial – or issuing a blanket ban.

“The US government should recognise that unless there is a clarification or broader exemption, Iranian developers will be forced to host their services inside Iran and be susceptible to abuse by Iran’s government,” Abdi said.

This is article is the latest installment in AJ Impact’s ongoing series “Locked Out”, which examines how ordinary Iranians are being cut off from global digital services. Click here to read about Iranians being blocked from data-hosting firm GitHub.

Source: Al Jazeera