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Opinion: Help Iranians Harness the Internet

by BABAK SIAVOSHY in Washington, D.C.

09 Dec 2009 13:0812 Comments
049789B4-1FDC-4B69-BB8D-1552EA313132_mw800_mh600.jpg[ comment ] The United States and the international community should support efforts to provide unfiltered Internet access to the Iranian people, and take measures to curb censorship by the Iranian government.

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.

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12 Comments

Amen.

Josh Shahryar / December 9, 2009 10:07 PM

"legislation should be passed that discourages private companies from providing censorship technology to Iran. "
this is not just for iran, this kind of technology is misused as well in great britain and the US ...
patriot act and such...
who is interested in further U.S. interests in the region??? U.S. should heal what it has done in iraq and afghanistan.
what happened to tehran bureau? this was such a decent source of information.
is this over?

afzaneh moheb / December 9, 2009 10:15 PM

Thank you for your article and for caring so much about the Green Movement.

But I disagree with you. It's not as if the U.S. and Britain are exactly not looking out for their own selfish interests.

How about if the IRANIAN DIASPORA begins pooling resources and funds, with our brilliance and skills as a people, to help our brothers and sisters in Iran?

Why are you calling on foreign governments to support our Green Movement, when we could do this ourselves?

Iranians are a very talented and wealthy people, we are one of the most successful diasporas no matter what country we go to. How about we tap into this diasporic energy?

How about using your position and clout to setup a web site that organizes this kind of strategic support for freer Internet access in Iran?

Also, the problem is that the hardware infrastructure in Iran is highly centralized. It looks to have been designed from day one to be undemocratic and consolidated. If the IR goes down and a new government comes into power, with mandate from the Green Movement, the first thing it should do is implement a plan to decentralize the Internet infrastructure in Iran (spending billions if needed), to make it that much more difficult for tyranny to take hold in Iran again.

I would suggest that Mousavi makes this a part of his official vision: reworking the Internet infrastructure to ensure free and unfettered access, as the Internet is the people's common, and does not belong to any government on this planet. With a free Internet, the people have a powerful buffer to protect their liberty as a nation.

Irani / December 10, 2009 12:35 AM

Thank you for this article. I wholeheartedly agree and support your ideas. The whole of the free democratic world should unite -- as it should have many many years ago -- to isolate and bring pressure on the murderous regime ruling Iran. International unity for psychological and moral isolation of the theocracy are key tactics. Of course there are some who would advocate the exact opposite which is psychological and physical isolation of the people in the misguided -- or otherwise!? -- belief that the people don't and should not need or expect outside help.

They are wrong. What Iran needs is EVERYONE'S help and moral support. Of course the Iranian people have proven their courage and capacity and they are standing up and being counted but the more they see and feel the rest of the world's support it will empower them and make them stronger until they succeed. We ARE and should continue to be the wind on their backs in this great Iranian struggle of David and Goliath. And the outside world does have a moral obligation to stand with them.

That is what they expect, and the answer and key to their success.

Empowerment of the people of Iran; moral demand and obligation of the rest of us until Iran is free and democratic again.

Simin / December 10, 2009 10:36 AM

I agree, what Iran needs is everyone's help & support. No one is trying to define what Iran becomes, but if the discussion cannot be had what's the point..

Reza / December 10, 2009 8:14 PM

The ideas expressed in this article if implemented will probably result in the death of the 'green' movement. The regime for once will be able to prove that they are working in collusion with the US. The US is already spending millions of dollars in destabilising IRI in various ways without much success and indirectly strengthening the 'hardliners'. In the '80s, the Israelis gave indirect support to the Islamist groups in Gaza to undermine Palestinian secular nationalists. The result is Hamas is even more powerful today and actually in power despite their dislike. The 'reform' movement must remain independent and homegrown and needs to work at the grassroots level with ordinary people, clerics, workers, small business people etc if it is to be successful. At present it is confined mostly to the young, student types and mostly from middle class/affluent groups. This is not going to give it success.

rezvan / December 10, 2009 9:45 PM

This article is based on misreported and often repeated statements about what NSN sold to Iran.

Iran purchased the same technolgy bought by telco operators in the U.S. from NSN, Nortel and Lucent. The telcos purchased the technology because of laws passed by the U.S. government requiring them to do so.

FerrisBu / December 11, 2009 1:10 AM

Every story about Iran's current problem should begin with the CIA's overthrow of the first elected government of Iran in 1953. That should be the right order.

Without this background, every story about the current situation in Iran, is like building a house on weak foundation. America started the problem in Iran by overthrowing an elected government and installing the puppet Shah. The crazy Mullahs would not be in power today if democracy was allowed to take root in the country.

Tell the truth, and stop hiding the real history. May be the International community need to help the American people know the un-filtered history of Iran. Just like the al-Qaeda and the Taliban, America created the cancer that is wrecking havoc on the citizens of Iran today.

Theo / December 11, 2009 11:29 AM

I have a stomach ache today. Can I blame that on CIA? After all this is how I start my day today. Get real Theo. Eventually Iranians have to realize what they suffer from is their own deeds in real time. They have to take a deep look at themselves and change what needs to be changed and again in real time.Blaming it on others does not accomplish anything. It is the cowardly way of doing things.GET REAL.

Brian M. / December 11, 2009 6:37 PM

U.S. intervention in Iran is a sensitive subject. Supporting free speech is not. U.S. policy should be focused on supporting the right to communicate, rather than sanctions.

Baran / December 12, 2009 1:27 AM

Is this the same CIA Theo? Who is being foolish now?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCjOk2t6Ah4&NR=1

If the last 30 years have not proven it to you then you will never learn.

Eli / December 12, 2009 1:54 AM

I have a petition that deals with this issue.
For EU we intend to use citizen's initiative clause within the Lisbon treaty to bring about a law change to stop EU companies selling such technology.

If you want to sign our petition here is the link:

http://www.petitionspot.com/petitions/noeviltechnology/

We also have a facebook group, please join us and show your support.

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=229986451112

Ramin Tork / December 14, 2009 1:15 AM