Locked Out: US sanctions are ruining online gaming in Iran

Those punitive measures are not meant to prevent Iranians from accessing personal communications over the internet, such as instant messaging, chat, email, social networks, web browsing, blogging and media sharing.

But digital subscription services, like online gaming, are not necessarily covered by those exemptions.

A company selling an online service to users in Iran could potentially land in hot water with the US Treasury if the user opening the account has been slapped with US sanctions.

“It appears that Riot Games is being prudent with this decision,” said Brian O’Toole, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and a former senior adviser with the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) that administers and oversees sanctions.

“If Riot were to argue that its services were authorised, then it would have to identify any person who met the Government of Iran definition and deny them an account, as well as any who were designated [sanctioned] under counterterrorism and other such authorities,” O’Toole tells Al Jazeera. “This would be exceedingly difficult as there is little to no identity verification used in gaming profiles.”

It is not just online gaming – companies across different industries are increasingly weighing the potential risks of selling online services to customers in Iran.

San Francisco-based GitHub, the world’s largest software code-hosting service, severely restricted users from Iran in late July. Cloud computing services giant Amazon Web Services also disabled Iranian accounts this year.

Riot Games is not the only game developer or publisher to block Iranian users from its list of eligible service recipients.

Epic Games, which developed the online phenomenon Fortnite, has blocked its online store to Iranians.

Apex Legends, a major game developed by Electronic Arts (EA), was blocked in February but was later unblocked after calls by Iranian fans.

Iran-based gamers can were temporarily unble to access California-based Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft.

Epic Games, Riot Games, EA and Respawn Entertainment – the development studio behind Apex Legends- did not respond to Al Jazeera requests for comment.

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