A senior White House official asked US tech company Cloudflare to help circumvent internet censorship in Iran after protests erupted in that country last September but US sanctions prevented the firm from doing so, Cloudflare CEO Mathew Prince said Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“I got a call from a senior official in the White House who said, ‘Can you do in Iran what you’re doing in Russia?’” said Prince, whose company makes software that protects users from cyberattacks and allows activists in authoritarian regimes to bypass censorship, during a panel discussion on security and technology. “And I said, ‘No.’ And [they] said, ‘Why not?’ And I said, ‘Because sanctions prevented us from ever putting our equipment in Iran.’”
The Iranian government moved to block internet access as 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 tech firms can play in US foreign policy.
US officials have, for example, tried to broker a deal with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to provide crucial satellite communications for Ukrainian troops during the war while also encouraging SpaceX to provide satellite service to Iran.
In the case of San Francisco-based Cloudflare, Prince said the White House official suggested the company could be given a “license” to operate in Iran, but Prince replied that it was “too late” for that.
Prince did not name the White House official.
CNN has requested comment from the White House National Security Council.
The Biden administration in September granted certain exceptions to US sanctions on Iran for tech firms 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 US sanctions unwittingly accelerated Iran’s development of an internal communications network.
Despite heavy US sanctions imposed on Russia after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Prince said Cloudflare’s prior presence on the ground in Russia means people there can use Cloudflare technology to circumvent Moscow’s censors to read credible news about the war. About 10% of Russian households use that anti-censorship Cloudflare technology, Prince claimed.
The phone call from the White House, Prince said, illustrated a difficult “tradeoff” between sanctions meant to punish human rights-flouting regimes and the need to get technology into the hands of dissidents.
Asked to respond to Prince’s comments during the panel discussion, FBI Director Christopher Wray said, “We engage in those tradeoffs every day.”
Many technologies present “great opportunity, but great dangers in the wrong hands,” Wray said.
While Cloudflare touts its record protecting dissidents abroad, it has also drawn heavy criticism from human rights activists for the firm’s willingness to provide services to controversial platforms such as messaging board 8chan (Cloudflare pulled its support for 8chan in 2019).