A Kafkaesque Realm of Cyber Censorship
by HAMID FAROKHNIA in Tehran
09 May 2010 00:12
In 2008, the Iranian government boasted of censoring five million Internet sites deemed potentially improper or immoral. The number of restricted sites has skyrocketed since the birth of the democratic movement in 2009. With more than 24 million Internet users by official count, a figure that grew 49 percent in the past year, Iran is second after Israel in the Middle East, making cyberspace a major target of censorship for the Islamic Republic.
Cyber censorship has been so pervasive and indiscriminate that even the regime's supporters have not been immune. Recently, several well-known hardline weblogs were caught in the censor's dragnet, prompting righteous howls of indignation from contributors and readers alike. In a bizarre twist, Mehdi Sarami, the man nominally in charge of "Internet filtering," admits he is largely powerless to ensure that pro-government sites do not continue to run into censorship trouble.
On April 9, the far right website Raja News broke the news of how several hardline blogs had been mysteriously blocked by orders from the government. The site's bewildered correspondent interviewed some of the affected bloggers, who seemed equally flummoxed. Omid Hosseini, whose weblog Ahestan was a top winner in the Revolutionary Guards-sponsored extravaganza "Eight Months of Cyber War" last year, speculated that perhaps his unique style of reporting had incurred the displeasure of the censors. "I don't know on what basis the 'filtering committee' is operating every night and day of the week," he complained.
Ahestan wasn't alone in this predicament. According to Raja News, the other victims included such stalwarts of the right as Esmail News, Madreseyema, and Khateratjebhe. The article implied that several less prominent rightist blogs and other sites had also been blocked quietly in recent months.
Raja News tried to get to the bottom of the mystery by interviewing Mehdi Sarami, the official in charge of Internet censorship. Sarami, a 30-year-old electrical engineer from Sharif University, is a full-time representative of the Guidance Ministry on the Cyber Crimes Committee, a sort of high command for Iran's censors. In the interview, Sarami deplored the closure of the rightist blogs and shifted the blame to other agencies. "We don't close down any blogs," he said. "We only sent our findings to the public prosecutor and they are the ones who decide what to do about various sites."
Sarami also revealed that many privately owned ISPs routinely engaged in censorship of their own. "The ISPs must be pressured to remove their parallel filtering. The mechanisms which have been improperly used by them must be eliminated once and for all -- unless of course, they are used on direct orders of the judiciary."
Asked why his office often expressed ignorance of the blocking of certain sites, Sarami explained that a judge can directly order a block in response to private complaints. "That judge is normally obligated to inform our task force of his decision," he said, implying that this communication does not always happen.
The Raja News reporter asked why the opening page that pops up in lieu of a blocked site looks different at times from the official blockpage. Sarami explained that it was likely due to the "parallel filtering" practiced by some of the country's unruly ISPs. He said that the procedure evidenced by such pages was illegal and needed to be addressed by the Internet regulatory agency.
Sarami gave a second interview two days later, this time to the influential Talabeblog, a portal for young clerics and seminarians. He elaborated on the issues he had already addressed and offered new revelations -- while providing further insight into the workings of a censor's mind.
He first differentiated between "filtering" (or "blocking") and "shutting down." The former, we learn, is what has taken place when the official pop-up page of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance appears on your computer screen. When the latter occurs, nothing appears in place of the site -- supposedly a stronger form of punishment. He referred Talabeblog readers to Samandehi.ir, where the full list of 50 Internet offenses are listed for users' edification.
The interviewer wondered why it was that young, politically correct Muslims should suffer the same punishment supposedly reserved for counterrevolutionaries. Sarami responded with an analogy: Sometimes, just one or two burglaries in a neighborhood over an entire year will prompt residents to call for round-the-clock policing. He went so far as to discourage extensive blogging by young hardliners. As an alternative, he pointed out, "There are useful social networks that people can refer to available on the mofidnet.ir site." It was important to use the recommended mofidnet sites, he said, because "the U.S. government had arrogated itself the right to pry into other communication systems. The U.S. State Department "disseminates software that enables it to monitor the private data and information of users," he said, adding that "Gmail has a secret agreement with the U.S. government" for this purpose.
He described the Iranian censorship situation in general as comparing favorably with that in the United States and other countries. "We are witness to a more pervasive form of filtering in the United States. Over there, every single Internet user and the way they operate is closely monitored. The moment they use an illegal site or email to that site, there is a criminal investigation opened against that person. It is a sort of eavesdropping.... It is called the Patriot Act." He continued, "Friends who are studying abroad tell me that they can not email certain kinds of information, that there is a reign of fear there."
Finally, Sarami addressed the question of whether there is an unaccountable "shadowy group" behind the filtering system and if anything could be done to rectify the situation. Describing the higher public profile of the committee on which he sits, he replied, "Perhaps until about six months ago that might have been the case, but our lines of communication have grown dramatically since then.... It may interest you to know that much of the filtering was effectively done by the people themselves, through complaints they lodged against these sites which were then directed to our task force for investigation."
It is clear that outside the authorized filtering system, there is a good deal of parallel filtering going on by commercial ISPs in Iran. But rather than a sign of rogue behavior by private firms, this activity is the inevitable consequence of draconian laws that hold ISPs accountable for their clients' content.
In December 2001, the inter-agency Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Sites (CCDUS) was set up under directives of the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution. It was tasked with drawing up criteria for the official blocking of websites, previously left to the discretion of the individual censors. The new committee was made up of representatives from the ministries of Intelligence, Guidance, and Communications, as well as the judiciary. The Ministry of Communications was assigned to develop or obtain the most advanced filtering devices in the world. Ultimately, SmartFilter, a product developed by the American firm Secure Computer, was procured. In November 2006, proposed regulations governing censorship and punishment for web content violation were submitted to the Majles. The conservative-controlled parliament quickly voted them into law.
Under the regulations, a significant legal burden was placed on Internet data carriers. Commercial ISPs were now subject to fines and dissolution should their clients be caught breaking the newly restrictive censorship laws. And it was clear that the government took the matter seriously. Not long before the new Cyber Crimes Bill was implemented, a group of 21 bloggers had been arrested and charged with national security offenses ranging from undermining of the state to fomenting social strife to criticizing the Supreme Leader. One of them, Yaghoob Mehrnahad, was executed for alleged ties with the Baluch armed group Jondollah. In November 2005, several IPSs in the city of Karaj were permanently closed down by the local Cyber Crimes Unit involving the public prosecutor, the Communications Ministry, West Tehran Intelligence, the Naja, and the Basij.
A year and a half ago, Enhanced Punishment of the Disrupters of Psychological Security, a bill orchestrated by the Revolutionary Guards and brought to the floor of the Majles by hardline representatives, was approved. It stipulates the death penalty for advocating "corruption, prostitution, and apostasy" on the Internet, placing such activity on a par with smuggling, kidnapping, armed robbery, and the like. This law has made Iran the world's leading violator of cyber rights. Small wonder that commercial ISPs routinely engage in ad hoc censorship.
A few days after Raja News ran the story of the hardline website blockages, it provided the basis for an expose that appeared on BBC Persian. In a perfectly ironic act of self-censorship, mirroring the tortuousness of Iran's electronic highways, Raja News responded by taking down its own article.
Hamid Farokhnia is a staff writer at Iran Labor Report and covers the capital for Tehran Bureau.
Photo: Censor-in-Chief Mehdi Sarami.
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