Google Offers Iranians ‘Play Store’ Access

Samuel Rubenfeld – Wall Street Journal

Google Inc. became what experts believe is the first company to extend technology services to Iranians under an authorization issued by the U.S. Treasury Department in May.

In a brief Google+ post on Monday, the company said to developers they can make their Android phone apps available in Iran, and instructed them on how to do so. The note said the distribution option is only available for free apps, and not for apps for purchase or those that use in-app billing.

Iranian commenters on the post could barely contain their glee.

“Thank you [G]oogle,” said Mehdi Akar, a Web developer at Chargoon Co., an Iranian software company. “[Y]ou give us freedom.”

Representatives from Google didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Experts told Risk & Compliance Journal that Google’s announcement marks the first time a company acted under a Treasury authorization issued in May that allowed technology and communications exports to Iranians to help the country’s people get around government repression and censorship.

Under the general license, issued by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, companies can export to Iran mobile phones, satellite phones, radio equipment, modems, laptops, anti-tracking software and anti-censorship tools, along with support systems for their use.

Collin Anderson, an independent American researcher who works on Internet censorship, said Google was a touchstone company for activists and developers who wanted to expand access to Iran. The company’s role as a middleman, with its Play app store, made it the valve for getting Web tools into the country, he said.

Noting that the extension only covered free apps, Mr. Anderson said Google hasn’t sorted out the issue of handling payments, something nearly every industry operating in Iran faces due to Western sanctions.

Mr. Anderson compared the payment situation to a similar problem for companies seeking to export medicine, or humanitiarian aid. For example, Mr. Anderson said, human rights organizations would pay a lot of money to advertise directly to an Iranian audience on democratization, or the use of anti-filtering tools.

But Mr. Anderson said he believes Google’s announcement will lead to other companies opening channels to Iran “because competitors react to each other,” especially when a new market opens up.

“It’ll be a trickle,” he acknowledged, saying that most will wait a few months to see how well Google’s offer does before themselves engaging. “If Google’s move isn’t perceived as [taking] a risk, I think others will move to allow access,” Mr. Anderson said.

Samuel Cutler, a policy adviser for Ferrari & Associates, said in a direct message on Twitter that “this is how exceptions and authorizations contained in the regulations are supposed to work, and both Google and OFAC should be applauded.”

Mr. Cutler contrasted Google’s offer to Samsung Electronics Co., which told Iranians in April that they would no longer have access to its app store as of May 22. A U.S. Samsung spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

“It highlights the need for OFAC to engage in more proactive outreach to companies so that they better understand the authorizations contained in the [regulations],” he said.