By Tony Romm - 03/08/10 05:12 PM EST
"Today’s actions will enable Iranian, Sudanese and Cuban citizens to exercise their most basic rights,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin said in a statement.
The State Department and a handful of lawmakers had pressed for lifting those restrictions on exports of Web services, describing Internet freedoms as key pathways to democratic reforms.
The move is thus likely to win praise from tech groups like Microsoft and Google,
which have long campaigned to resume business in those countries.
“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," Wolin said.
Internet tools have proven exceptionally critical to dissident groups seeking democratic changes in their authoritarian states, according to tech giants including Google.
Most recently, opposition forces in Iran have taken to personal blogs and Twitter accounts to spread word about upcoming anti-government protests. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government has fought back using a host of new Internet regulations — including a total ban on Gmail activity in his state — that threaten citizens' unfettered access to the Web.
The State Department has long railed against such abuses of Internet freedom, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton earlier this year called on Iran and other states to permit unimpeded communication online.
But the White House had not taken much formal, substantive action to preserve Web communication in authoritarian states until Monday, even despite increasing congressional pressure on the matter.
The new Treasury policy would grant "general licenses" for Internet communication exports to Iran, Sudan and Cuba, and software exports only to Iran and Sudan, as the State Department requested.
The Cuba licenses will be handled by the Commerce Department, which has jurisdiction over issues regarding the longstanding U.S.-Cuba trade embargo.
Treasury officials assured that the latest changes to its export laws did not mean the department was relaxing its other restrictions on those authoritarian regimes.
“At the same time as we take these steps, the administration will continue aggressively to enforce existing sanctions and to work with our international partners to increase the pressure on the government of Iran to meet its international obligations," Wolin said.