Last Saturday, while I was out of town, Iran banned access to Facebook. The Iranian reformists supporting Mir-Hossein Musavi for President quickly said this was aimed at them and was a ploy by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to prevent the oppositionm from mobilizing the young. Ahmadinejad, asked the question — it's worth remembering that there is questioning of candidates going on, given the demonization of Iran in the West — reportedly said that websites need not be blocked, and now Facebook access has been restored.
It's easy enough to see this as another instance of a clumsy authoritarian government not understanding the technology, or of a blunder on the part of the incumbent regime to block an opposition candidate (who is, of course, also a longtime player in the regime). In that sense it may seem like the sort of thing we see all the time, such as a recent Egyptian court decision ordering the blockage of "obscene" websites. It may work, up to a point, but in the end it is very hard to completely control the Internet unless the government is the sole Internet provider (as it is in many Arab countries), and then the blockages are often more political than moral.
A bit harder to figure out is the announcement that Microsoft has decided to block Microsoft Messenger access to Cuba, Syria, Iran, Sudan, and North Korea. Another report here. I haven't found Microsoft's official announcement yet but all the reports so far indicate that the reason is that all these countries are under US sanctions of one sort or another. A couple of quick points come to mind:
- Huh? The United States imposed sanctions on trade with Cuba in 1962. Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft in 1975. This is 2009. What just changed? If some lawyer decided that US embargoes made providing Messenger to these countries illegal, why now, 47 years after sanctions were placed on Cuba?
- I rather doubt that anyone outside of the government elite in North Korea is using Microsoft Messenger, or for that matter modern plumbing. It's probably got a limited audience at best in Cuba and Sudan. But Syria and Iran are a bit different: both have Internet cultures of a sort. And as noted above, Facebook has become something of a campaign issue in Iran.
- Wait a minute here! Isn't the purpose of our embargoes to encourage democracy in the countries we impose sanctions on? If so, wouldn't an Instant Messaging service — assuming the country does not itself ban access to it — facilitate that? If I were the US government's I'd airdrop instant messaging software in every hostile country on earth, and if some sort of government pressure is behind Microsoft's decision, that's stupid. As Mr. Bumble put it in Dickens' Oliver Twist: "If the law supposes that… the law is a ass—a idiot."
- Those of us who have fond memories of Word Perfect and Netscape and still use Firefox have long suspected that Microsoft is evil. This tends to be further evidence in support, but I suspect there's some sort of government lawyer behind this decision, and that suggests that the government doesn't have a clue. I have little concern about North Korea here, which doesn't want outside information anyway (and given the fact that it appears as a black hole in night photos from space, I rather doubt there are many computers unless powered by hamsters), and I don't think there's a huge Internet culture in Sudan, but Iran and Syria are genuinely in play in the era of Web 2.0, and blocking Microsoft Messenger there is somewhere between silly and downright self-defeating.
- And the timing question plagues me. We're trying to open up our dealings with Syria and hoping to improve things with Iran, after all. As for Cuba, not only has this Administration eased the embargo a bit, but we recognize, I think, that it's an anachronism. So why, 47 years after sanctions were imposed, 34 years after Microsoft was founded and well into the Instant Messaging age, do Microsoft or its lawyers decide that the embargo requires blocking Instant Messaging in Cuba? Why now? Anybody have any ideas that don't involve incredibly dense lawyers?