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How Geeks (and Non-Geeks) Can Help Iranians Online

17 Jul 2009 14:365 Comments

By CYRUS FARIVAR in Oakland | 17 July 2009

In the past few weeks, I've seen a surprising number of my non-Iranian friends utterly captivated by news coming out of Iran. It's easy to understand why -- the power struggle in Iran's post-election aftermath is dramatic, to say the least.

Indeed, some of the best English-language blogging about Iran has come from non-Iranians, including The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Huffington Post. Further, I've seen my techie friends glued to Twitter, waiting for the next drip of information to filter through to them.

But many Iranians and Americans (and Iranian-Americans) alike want to do more than just be passive spectators. Indeed, many have already gotten involved.

Given that foreign media has been kicked out of Iran, the Internet has emerged as a vital channel for news and information coming out of Iran. However, the Iranian government knows this and has slowed the Internet to less than half of its usual speed, and has filtered even more websites than normal.

As a way to counter this censorship, there already is a growing legion of people worldwide who are helping Iranians improve access to the heavily-filtered and significantly slower Internet.

Some have installed a piece of software called Tor on their home computers.

Tor lets its users be anonymous and secure online, and also circumvents the Iranian government's filtering system. Tor users in Iran require that other Tor users around the world have their computers configured to act as a "relay," to pass on Iranians' data and hide it from the prying eyes of the Tehran government. But even setting up a Tor relay requires a little bit of technical knowledge.

Andrew Lewman, executive director of The Tor Project, says that his organization has been seeing around 2,000 new users from Iran each day -- about a 10-fold increase since prior to the election.

Other cyber activists mainly in the United States are currently working on a program called Haystack, which its organizers claim is custom-designed to defeat Tehran's online filtering infrastructure.

However, not everyone is as tech-savvy as these groups.

Many Iran watchers have wondered if there is something more significant than changing their Twitter avatar color to green, or posting "Where is my vote?" signs online -- but something that's doesn't require crazy hacking skills.

So, here are four meaningful, but non-technical ways to help Iranians online:

1) Tell your Iranian friends about Psiphon:

Spread the word to Iranians in Iran about Psiphon, an anti-filtering program that was spun off from the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. Ron Deibert, of of Psiphon's organizers, says that tens of thousands of Iranians have used Psiphon since the post-election turmoil, and notes that the Iranian authorities have yet to block it. They've set up a special web page in Persian making it very easy for new users to gain unfiltered access to the Internet.

2) Tell your Iranian friends about Herdict:

There's a new project out of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University that allows Internet users around the world to report on the status of what websites are blocked around the world. Currently, there isn't a whole lot of data that they're working with -- Iran is the third-most reported on country, but Herdict only has 200 reports of inaccessible sites, including Twitter, Facebook and CNN. With more people in Iran using Herdict, it could provide a better peek into what is and isn't being blocked.

3) If you speak Persian, translate:

There's tons of documents (the Herdict site included) that simply aren't yet available in Persian. Even many of Tor's documents have yet to be translated. So if you've got time to spare and are fluent in English and Persian, consider translating for these causes so that more Iranians can use these tools and get online. There's even websites devoted to translating Persian content into English and English content into Persian.

4) Open your wallet:

Finally, if you don't know what else to do, consider donating money to the people that are working to bring these anti-filtering tools to light. The Tor Project is a US-registered 501c3 non-profit organization that accepts tax deductible donations. Even Haystack, which is currently working on its non-profit status, is currently accepting donations at its creator's website.

Cyrus Farivar is an Iranian-American freelance technology journalist based in Oakland, Calif. He regularly reports for PRI's The World, NPR, CBC, The Economist and others. His forthcoming book, "The Internet of Elsewhere," examines the history and effects of the Internet in four countries around the world, including Iran. It's due out from Rutgers University Press in 2010.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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Thank you so much for writing this!

Robin Menikoff / July 17, 2009 12:47 PM

Thanks. Very informative.

Sam Rastin / July 17, 2009 8:11 PM

I've started spreading the word about the sites and donated to The Tor Project. I just wish I could do more. If I knew how, I'd have already used my computer as a proxy server for the people in Iran.

Dave In America / July 17, 2009 11:07 PM

On a side note, you know what I keep thinking about since the protests started? How different would the outcome have been in China if the Chinese Democracy movement had had the internet in 1989. If only...

Thank god for the internet now. It's really the only source of news from inside Iran right now. And without it, who knows how much worse the dictatorship's crackdown would have been. They knew the world was and still is watching so their repsonse, as bad as it's been, would have most likely been much worse.

Thanks again to everyone here at Tehran Bureau and all the other sites and people who are doing whatever they can to help the Iranian people by making sure the world is informed about what's going on.

Dave In America / July 17, 2009 11:14 PM

Nice story. As a non-Iranian semi-geek posting tweets on Iran elections, I can relate to this article


Richard Whitehead / July 18, 2009 2:15 PM