The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion One thing the Trump administration can do right now to help protesters in Iran

A woman displays pictures of President Trump as she follows the news on her mobile phone in Tehran. (Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi/Tima via Reuters)

Bruce Lawlor is a retired Army major general and the first chief of staff of the Department of Homeland Security.

As protests continue in Iran, State Department officials have called upon the Iranian government to unblock Instagram and other popular social media sites. Sites such as these, says Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein, “are legitimate avenues for communication. People in Iran should be able to access those sites.” He adds that the United States has an “obligation not to stand by.” Yet if the administration really wants to give the Iranian people access to social media sites, it can provide the access itself.

Internet advocates tout the Web as a tool for the spread of democratic ideals and individual freedom. It certainly can be, provided people are able to participate in the free flow of ideas in cyberspace. Increasingly, however, that doesn’t happen, because authoritarian regimes are building Internet censorship systems that control or suppress what their citizens can access, publish and view on the Web. Freedom House reports that uncensored access to the Internet in 2016 declined for the sixth straight year. Of the 65 countries examined, 34 had limited access to their social media and communications sites.

The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor is responsible for promoting freedom and democracy and protecting human rights around the world. This includes managing the nation’s Internet anti-firewall strategy – in other words, the policies that oppose government censorship in favor of individual freedom of expression, including expression online.

Circumventing the sophisticated Internet censorship systems of authoritarian regimes — such as those in Iran, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam — isn’t necessarily a formula for commercial success. There are some things that require government support to be viable. Part of State’s job is to provide financial assistance to U.S. technologies that help people in closed societies circumvent censorship.

For some time now, State has grudgingly supported a field-tested, operational censorship circumvention software called UltraSurf. This software is readily available on the Internet and is being used by millions of people to avoid efforts by authoritarian governments to control what they can say and read.

The bureau has gradually withdrawn its financial support from UltraSurf. One big reason for this is that China, the world’s biggest Internet censor, objects to the development of programs that can circumvent its repressive censorship. Obama administration officials admitted that State Department funding decisions in such matters are based, at least in part, on the department’s desire to keep the Chinese from “go[ing] ballistic.” Now similar concerns for Chinese sensitivities appear to be shaping the Trump administration’s response to the Iranian people’s protests for freedom.

Iranians have been using UltraSurf to circumvent the mullahs’ censors, but recently the number of Iranian users has exploded to about 2 million, with daily hits on the website numbering about 1 billion. That’s the good news. The bad news is that because of the lack of funding from State, UltraSurf’s servers are in danger of crashing for lack of capacity to meet the exploding Iranian demand. Too many Iranians have joined the people in other closed societies who are trying to use the software.

So despite the increasing demand for UltraSurf’s tool, despite congressional calls for money to develop exactly this type of firewall circumvention technology, and despite President Trump’s full-throated support for Iranian protesters, UltraSurf’s servers are unable to meet the demand for want of roughly 3 million dollars, a rounding error in federal spending, to scale up its capacity.

We’ve seen this movie before. In 2012, President Obama pledged to take all available steps to bypass Iran’s suffocating firewalls. He spoke of “a basic freedom for the Iranian people; the freedom to connect with one another and with their fellow human beings.” While he spoke, the State Department was resisting pressure from a broad range of outside groups to step up its support of firewall circumvention technology. So nothing happened.

The problem is that if UltraSurf works against the Iranians, it also works against the Chinese. The administration sees China as its partner in blocking North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons, and the State Department appears to be more worried about the Chinese than it is about the ability of Iranian protesters to access media sites. The Chinese would like nothing better than to see the State Department starve UltraSurf and other firewall circumvention programs. The question is whether, once again, we will see the State Department do nothing after a president’s public commitment to Iranian freedom.

It’s foolish to think he mullahs will heed the State Department’s call and open their social media sites. So Mr. President, Mr. Undersecretary, if you really believe the U.S. has an “obligation not to stand by” as the mullahs continue to shackle the Iranian people, then tell your own people in the State Department to spend the small amount it will take to circumvent Iran’s censors and promote democracy.