U.S. officials said they were allowing U.S. technology companies to export chat and social media software to Iran, Sudan and Cuba, with the hope it will help their citizens communicate with the outside world.
The decision by the U.S. Treasury Department followed a request by the State Department to provide waivers under existing sanctions, allowing companies like Google Inc and Microsoft Corp to export free, mass-market software.
Today's actions will enable Iranian, Sudanese and Cuban citizens to exercise their most basic rights, Deputy Treasury Secretary Neil Wolin said on Monday in a statement.
The waiver would allow downloads of software for Web browsing, blogging, email, instant messaging, and chat; social networking; and photo and movie sharing, the Treasury said.
The Internet was an important communication channel for Iranian protesters disputing election results last year. The United States has accused Iran of restricting Internet access in response.
During a news conference with the president of Gabon on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Iran, which calls itself a democracy, should act like one and respect the right to free expression and assembly.
And in the 21st century, expression and assembly are carried out on the Internet as well as in person, she said. So we're going to continue to support those Iranians who wish to circumvent and be able to communicate without being blocked by their own government.
In a December 15, 2009, letter to Carl Levin, chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, the State Department said it had asked Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control to loosen export rules, citing a U.S. national interest to allow people in those nations to have access to the programs.
The State Department has held a series of meetings with technology companies, including one last Thursday, as Washington presses for Internet freedom in countries like China, Iran and others.
The State Department supports the development of software to circumvent government censorship and is reviewing grant applications by software developers.
Sheldon Himelfarb, an expert on technology at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said he supports the U.S. move which he said was a long time coming.
It doesn't mean that those governments can't censor, control, or influence what is said on the Internet domestically, Himelfarb said.
At least the general population will have access to the best communication and collaboration tools possible -- which are still by and large developed here in the United States, he said.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Nancy Waitz; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)