But the California-based crowdfunding company suspended at least two fundraisers for Iranian-Canadian families affected by the crash, likely slashing the funds they’d be able to raise.
The reason? U.S. sanctions on Iran.
“Occasionally in the wake of crises like the tragic plane crash, we require additional information from campaign organizers to ensure funds go to the right place,” GoFundMe spokesperson Caitlin Stanley said. “[I]t is because the tragic event took place in a sanctioned country.”
Instagram similarly cited U.S. sanctions when censoring certain content in the wake of the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani earlier this month, highlighting how the complex web of American sanctions on Iran is largely open to interpretation by Silicon Valley.
That pressure from the U.S., coupled with an Iranian regime that has cracked down on social media and pushed homemade internet services it can control, has led many tech firms like Amazon, Apple, and others to restrict access in the country. It’s drastically reoriented how Iranians are able to communicate with one another and the outside world.
‘A blunt instrument’
“Sanctions are a very blunt instrument and it’s very hard to craft them in a way in the 21st century, when everyone is connected, so they don’t have these spillover effects,” said Ryan Costello, policy director for the National Iranian American Council.
GoFundMe also reinstated the two fundraisers for Canadian victims of the plane crash after verifying the funds wouldn’t go to individuals covered under sanctions. While there are legal guidelines for charitable donations to Iranians, the GoFundMe drives in question explicitly aimed to benefit Iranian-Canadians. The confusion still held up the fundraisers.
“Usually it’s left to in-house counsel of these tech companies to determine what they can and can’t do with U.S. sanctions,” said Mohsen Zarkesh, an attorney who focuses on sanctions law for the Washington-based firm Price Benowitz, LLP. “There’s definitely more leeway for tech companies in dealing with Iran compared to, say, the financial sector or trade.”
Those decisions are crucial in shaping how conflict with Iran plays out in real-time. Social media users across the Middle East have shared popular outcry and propaganda alike since the American assassination of Soleimani. President Donald Trump has since warned the regime against shutting down the internet like it did during violent crackdowns on public protests in November.
But the Silicon Valley companies that dominate the internet have tended to approach the country with extreme caution in recent years. Apple blocked Iranian users from the App store in 2018. Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, and GitHub have similarly slashed access in the country, cutting off key infrastructure for web hosting and development. (Amazon and Google have also recently vied for multibillion-dollar U.S. defense contracts.)
Richard Nephew, the lead sanctions expert for the Obama administration team negotiating with the country, told VICE News that while U.S. companies are prohibited from providing services to sanctioned individuals or entities, defining “services” in terms of media or communication is more difficult.