Cloudflare says White House asked tech company to bypass Iran censorship, but US sanctions got in the way | CNN Business
A senior White House official asked US technology company Cloudflare to help circumvent internet censorship in Iran after protests erupted in the country last September, but US sanctions have prevent the company from doing so, Cloudflare CEO Mathew Prince said Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. .
“I got a call from a senior White House official who said, ‘Can you do in Iran what you’re doing in Russia?'” said Prince, whose company makes software that protects users of cyberattacks and allows activists in authoritarian regimes to avoid censorship, during a roundtable discussion on security and technology. “And I said, ‘No.’ I [they] he said, “Why not?” And I said, “Because the sanctions prevented us from ever putting our team in Iran.”
The Iranian government decided to block Internet access when hundreds of protesters were killed in clashes with Iran’s security forces last fall, according to human rights activists.
The anecdote underscores the prominent role that large technology companies can play in US foreign policy.
US officials, for example, have tried to negotiate a deal with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to provide crucial satellite communications for Ukrainian troops during the war while encouraging SpaceX to provide satellite service to the ‘Iran.
In the case of San Francisco-based Cloudflare, Prince said the White House official suggested the company might receive a “license” to operate in Iran, but Prince responded that it was “too late ” for that.
Prince did not name the White House official.
CNN has reached out to the White House National Security Council for comment.
The Biden administration in September granted certain exemptions to US sanctions on Iran for technology companies that provide tools for everyday Iranians to communicate, such as cloud computing or social media services.
But that move was long overdue, digital rights activists previously told CNN, and U.S. sanctions inadvertently accelerated the development of an internal communications network in Iran.
Despite heavy U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia after its large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Prince said Cloudflare’s prior presence on the ground in Russia means people there can use Cloudflare’s technology to bypass Moscow censors to read credible news about the war. About 10 percent of Russian households use this anti-censorship Cloudflare technology, Prince claimed.
The White House phone call, Prince said, illustrated a difficult “trade-off” between sanctions aimed at punishing regimes that flout human rights and the need to put technology in the hands of dissidents.
When asked to respond to Prince’s comments during the roundtable, FBI Director Christopher Wray said, “We engage in these offsets every day.”
Many technologies present “great opportunity, but great dangers in the wrong hands,” Wray said.
While Cloudflare touts its record of protecting dissidents abroad, it has also come under heavy criticism from human rights activists for the company’s willingness to provide services to controversial platforms such as the messaging board 8chan (Cloudflare withdrew support from 8chan in 2019).