Authoritarian Tech

US sanctions block Iranians from accessing coronavirus map

As coronavirus spreads in Iran, US sanctions bar Iranians from using a Johns Hopkins map to track the virus

In Iran, reliable information about coronavirus is in short supply. The country has the highest death toll outside China, with at least 66 confirmed deaths. Conflicting reports indicate the death toll and number of cases — now officially at 1,501— may be far higher.

As the virus continues to spread, Iranians are desperate for reliable information. On the popular Telegram messaging app and Persian-language Twitter, rumors and fake statements are flying.

Outside the country, one of the most reliable sources is a virus mapping tool built by Johns Hopkins University, which tracks worldwide Covid-19 cases in real time.

But in Iran, the map is currently blocked to almost all users.

Initially, a rumor spread that it was the Iranian government blocking the map — until human rights and freedom of speech organization Article 19 confirmed that the map is blocked not by Iran, but because of U.S. sanctions.

Iranian internet advocates say access to a resource like the Johns Hopkins map is crucial in Iran, where accurate information about coronavirus is in short supply. 

“It’s really terrifying,” said Mahsa Alimardani, an Oxford University researcher on Iran internet issues and program officer at Article 19. “Police are arresting people, without much transparency, for sharing information about the severity of the virus,” she said, adding that a lack of access to information was helping the virus to spread. “The Iranian people are getting it from all sides. They’re getting it from their own government that’s clearly putting hurdles on free flow of information — and then sanctions come and do their part.”

The map was developed and is hosted by ArcGis, a mapping system maintained by California software company Esri.

According to Esri, the map is automatically blocked in Iran, which is listed as a “prohibited country” on its website.

“The default for the services used by Johns Hopkins for their Covid-19 map prevents it from being viewed in countries embargoed per U.S. export laws,” said Esri spokesperson Jo Ann Pruchniewski in an email. 

“When this has been an issue in the past, our users have been very successful obtaining U.S. export licenses for humanitarian efforts and we would be happy to support Johns Hopkins in doing so,” she added. 

Johns Hopkins said it was working to make sure the map is fully available in Iran in the near future. “Our data shows that people in dozens of locations in Iran have been viewing the site. But we are working with Esri to make sure the map is fully accessible as soon as possible,” said spokesperson Douglas Donavan.

Though it has been confirmed that Johns Hopkins and Esri are blocking the map, the tool is also hosted by Amazon Web Services’ cloud platform, which has faced criticism in the past for blocking Iranian users from uploading to its cloud.

Amazon Web Services spokesperson Matt Lambert confirmed in an emailed statement: “We’re not the source blocking the access.”

The map’s unavailability in Iran is the latest in a string of cases where tech services have been denied to ordinary Iranians as a result of tech companies complying with U.S. sanctions. 

“This administration is creating a culture of fear around information – its directly against American values and the principles of freedom of expression,” said Jillian York, Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Freedom Foundation.

Last month, I reported on how Iranian users were finding themselves censored and shut down by Instagram. Meanwhile platforms, including Github and GoFundMe have also denied their services to Iranian users.

In July, the U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, made a video called “Dispelling Myths About U.S. Sanctions on Iran.” In the video, Hook clarified to Iranian viewers that U.S. lawmakers “believe strongly in the free flow of communication and information,” and that the U.S. “does not sanction hardware, software or services related to personal communications.” 

On Friday, U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren wrote a letter to the Trump administration, seeking assurances that humanitarian aid is not being hindered by sanctions. 

Critics argue that tech companies’ overcompliance with U.S. sanctions helps the Iranian regime to more tightly control the flow of information in Iran. “Iran is not a country where access to information is freely available,” said Amir Rashidi, an Iran internet security and digital rights researcher based in New York, who first raised awareness that the map was unavailable in Iran. 

Rashidi has been monitoring Iran’s internet services as the virus has continued to spread. “The internet situation is not really good, there has been some disruption in internet services in February,” he said.

Elsewhere, the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 Global Case map has proved an invaluable tool both to citizens and lawmakers alike. Last week, the map’s dashboard briefly went down all over the world as a result of high traffic. The U.S. Homeland Security Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli swiftly tweeted, “has the Johns Hopkins map of the coronavirus stopped working for other people, or just me?” 

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.

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Isobel Cockerell

Isobel Cockerell is a reporter with Coda Story. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she has also reported for WIRED, USA Today, Rappler, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post and others.

Get in touch via [email protected] Follow @isocockerell