Google announced this afternoon that parts of the Google Play store (where you can purchase music, books, and Android apps) will now be available in Iran. The change in policy comes three months after the U.S. government took steps to increase the availability of personal and secure communications tools for Iranian citizens by issuing General License D. The new license, which went into effect on May 30, 2013, exempts certain hardware, software, and services from the Iranian sanctions regulations – and provides the legal basis for unblocking Google Play. Mobile app stores and related software were explicitly included in the license, which was issued prior to the June presidential election in order to clarify and expand existing exemptions in U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Google’s decision is an exciting and important first step. It will give Iranians access to a number of important tools, such as the apps developed by the Guardian Project, which many activists use to protect themselves from unwanted communications surveillance. But the work to make these communication tools accessible to Iranians is far from over, as developers still have to proactively opt-in to make their products available in Iran. Google has also limited the change to free apps, despite the fact that General License D authorizes financial transactions related to the products it covers as well. Still, Google's example sets a precedent that we hope other companies will soon follow.