Opinion: Help Iranians Harness the Internet
by BABAK SIAVOSHY in Washington, D.C.
09 Dec 2009 13:08
Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei oversees the nation's television and radio networks, and has engaged in a systematic repression of the press, leaving the Internet as the final resource for Iranians seeking information that is free from government control.
Web-based networking tools have also played an important role in providing Iranians with an avenue of expression and communication in an increasingly closed society. When Iran expelled foreign journalists in the wake of the contested June 12 election, Iran's vibrant Internet community used Facebook and Twitter to expose the Iranian government's violent crackdown on peaceful protesters.
In response to these developments, the Iranian government has staged a coordinated campaign of Internet filtering, censorship and intimidation. Initial reports from this Monday's Student Day demonstrations suggest that the Iranian government has gone as far as shutting down the Internet completely in certain urban centers in an effort to block communications amongst citizens, and to prevent reports of unrest from leaving the country.
It is crucial that these avenues of communication and information remain open. Several concrete steps should be taken to ensure that the Iranian people retain open access to the Internet.
1. Investment in Anti-Filtering Technologies
First, the United States and the international community should support efforts to provide the Iranian people with technology that can be used to bypass government censorship.
The Islamic Republic currently blocks access to more than 5 million websites, including blogs, Internet news outlets, and social networking sites. The government also monitors web traffic, email, instant messaging, phone conversations, and text messaging.
While a number of systems are available to help counter these measures, financial and legal hurdles have prevented their full-scale implementation in Iran. Proxy programs like Haystack, created by the Censorship Research Center (with which I am affiliated), can bypass Iranian filters by diverting a user's traffic to servers located outside the reach of censors. But the servers required to run these programs are expensive to maintain, and their operation is complicated by sanctions regulations that govern the export of software to Iran.
The U.S. Senate took a positive step towards resolving these issues when it passed the Victims of Iranian Censorship (VOICE) Act, which promises to provide funding to support the development of technology that allows Iranians to gain access and share information. The House of Representatives should vote on the bill sooner than later, and expedite the distribution of funds to organizations working on providing relief to the victims of Iranian censorship.
Additionally, executive agencies should ease some of the legal restrictions placed on anti-censorship software sent to Iran for the purpose of promoting free access to the Internet.
Finally, nations in the European Community should follow the United States' lead and fund similar programs aiming to provide unfiltered Internet access to the Iranian people.
2. Restrictions on sale of censorship technologies to the Iranian government
Second, legislation should be passed that discourages private companies from providing censorship technology to Iran.
A joint venture of Siemens AG, the German conglomerate, and Nokia Corp., the Finnish cellphone company, recently sold Iran powerful technology that can be used to filter and monitor phone and Internet communications.
The European Union should denounce this activity and impose laws that ban or discourage the sale of filtration technology to Iran.
Provided it becomes law, the VOICE Act would require the United States to issue a report on "non-Iranian companies, including corporations with U.S. subsidiaries, that have aided the Iranian government's Internet censorship efforts."
This is a step in the right direction, but not one that goes far enough. The United States and the European Community must cease to do business with companies which continue to provide filtration technology to the Iranian government.
Taxes collected from the citizens of the democratic world should not be used to increase the profits of companies that aid and abet Iran's human rights abuses.
3. Make news more accessible to Iranians
Third, news media organizations should take steps to make news -- particularly news concerning Iran and the Middle East -- more accessible to the Iranian people.
The U.S. and the U.K. host or sponsor a number of radio and television programs that transmit international news in Farsi into Iran. These feeds can be picked up within Iran with satellite dishes and radios. These efforts should be supplemented with legislation that would support the translation of nongovernmental news sources into languages spoken in censorship-affected communities.
For example, the VOICE Act could be amended to provide incentives to private news organizations that provide a portion of their online content in Farsi.
This would help make international news more accessible to Iranians.
4. Protect bloggers
Fourth, the international community, and the United States in particular, should explicitly denounce Iran's abuse and persecution of bloggers.
Iran became the first nation to arrest someone for blogging in 2003, when the government detained journalist and blogger Sina Motalebi for 23 days in solitary confinement because of the contents of his blog.
Since then, the Iranian government has detained and harassed hundreds of bloggers, often without charge. Many of those who have been released have reported being subjected to sever psychological and physical abuse.
The recent tragic death of 29-year-old blogger Omid Reza Mir-Sarryaffi in Tehran's notorious Evin prison exemplifies the need for immediate measures to focus attention on the unjustified persecution of this new breed of journalists.
The United States must take a leadership role in denouncing these acts, and protecting the basic human right to free communication.
The most effective way to help Iran's budding democracy movement, and to further U.S. interests in the region, is to give the Iranian people a voice. The measures described here would do just that, making it more difficult for the Iranian government to hide human rights abuses behind a veil of censorship, and empowering Iranian citizens to expand the public debate on the future of their nation.
Babak Siavoshy is the Director of Development at the Censorship Research Center and a Visiting Scholar at Georgetown's Center on National Security and the Law.