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Opinion | Don't Abandon Iran's Internet Generation to Online Oppression


14 Nov 2012 10:14Comments

Sattar Beheshti's death underscores importance of ensuring Iranians' access to online security technology.

The author is a Green Movement supporter and activist in Tehran.
[ comment ] Imagine you live in a country like the Oceania of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, where Big Brother seeks to control almost every aspect of your life, particularly your interaction with the media -- determining the news and information to which you are permitted access and watching every move you make on the Internet. Imagine yourself struggling to open a small window in the invisible but all too real wall erected by the ruling system to take a peek at reality, or to scream out so others might hear that you exist and are hurting. You want to feel what it is like to live emancipated, if not in the real world at least in the cyber realm. You are aware that every time you make such an attempt, the government is likely to detect it, and if it feels threatened in any way by your activity will hunt you down and throw you in one of its grim prisons. You hold out hope that those who enjoy freedom on the "other side" do not forget you, and if they do not lend a hand in opening that little window, at least will not act, however unwittingly, in concert with Big Brother.

Yet that is the gist of what now confronts Iran's Internet generation, the young people whose courageous defiance of the engineered presidential election of 2009 brought Iranians' long-stifled aspirations for democracy and freedom to the world's attention. The situation has been highlighted by the death last week of Sattar Beheshti, 35, a Green Movement supporter who maintained a blog in which he criticized the regime and its treatment of political prisoners. A laborer living in one of Tehran's poorest suburbs, Beheshti -- despite not using his full name on his blog page -- was tracked down and arrested in early November by the Islamic Republic's cyber police. His death was reportedly the result of torture he endured during interrogation.

Beheshti's tragic death underlines the deeply besieged mentality of Iran's theocratic regime and how far it will go to suppress any voice of popular opposition. The aftermath of the 2009 election impressed on the government the grave danger posed to it by a free flow of information and an informed citizenry. An enormous amount of money was allocated to the acquisition of some of the world's most sophisticated systems for monitoring and tracking electronic communications, restricting the Internet, and jamming satellite broadcast signals.

During the Green Movement's rise, as with the Arab Spring a year and a half later, email services like Google's Gmail, social media like Facebook, video-sharing sites like YouTube, and blogging services played crucial roles in organizing street protests and disseminating news about them. Over the past two and a half years, access to a growing number of such services as well as to a vast range of news and information websites has been prohibited. Officials have prophesied that the Internet will eventually be replaced by a national "intranet" and that the widely popular Gmail will be supplanted by a locally developed and controlled email service. Gmail is a particular target because it encodes messages during delivery, which makes it difficult for the regime to monitor the content of communications on a broad scale. Two months ago, using the YouTube posting of the anti-Islamic video "The Innocence of Muslims" as a pretext, the regime blocked access to Gmail, though it backed down after a few days.

Iranian Internet users and the state's censorship apparatus now play a cat-and-mouse game around the government's so-called filtering process. Users do their best to circumvent the state's efforts through virtual private networks (VPNs) and various antifiltering applications, while the state attempts to render those countermeasures ineffectual or, whenever possible, exploit them to spy on Internet users -- for example, by promoting and administering fraudulent VPNs. The antifiltering applications supplied by Radio Farda, the Persian-language service of Voice of America/Radio Free Europe, have been especially valuable to Iranian citizens who seek free access to information. Such applications need to be updated regularly to ensure their ability to circumvent the filtering system and defend against regime attempts to hijack them.

For almost any 21st-century Iranian activist, a minimum computer security system, including firewall, antivirus security, antispyware, and timely updates to those applications as well as to operating systems and browser plugins, has become essential. It is not clear how vulnerable Beheshti's computer was, but the fact is that all the components of a basic online defense system are available free of charge over the Internet -- except increasingly not for Iranians.

Since last year, for example, two of the best-known free antivirus programs, AVG and Avast, have stopped Iranian IP users from downloading their software or updating their virus definitions -- though no sanctions mandate this. Adobe does not permit Iranian users to download its free Flash and PDF-reading systems, which are used by hundreds of millions of people across the globe. This is particularly important in the case of Adobe Flash Player, the dominant streaming video plugin. During the height of the Green Movement, Iranian activists took great risks to capture and post video clips of street demonstrations to inform the world about what was taking place inside Iran.

There is no comprehensible logic to denying the Iranian people access to such technology. Whom do these software companies imagine is going to suffer as a result? Iran's authoritarian rulers? Rest assured, the regime is not using the free versions of antivirus software to protect its multibillion-dollar nuclear and military projects against highly sophisticated malware programs like Stuxnet or Flame. Nor are its nuclear technicians unable to open the how-to videos and manuals for their uranium enrichment centrifuges because they cannot download Flash Player or Adobe's PDF reader.

The impact, however, is entirely different on ordinary Iranian Internet users, undoubtedly including Beheshti. Over the past year, the rial has lost nearly two thirds of its value against the dollar and euro, yielding high inflation in almost every sector of the economy. With middle- and working-class incomes stagnant, most Iranians are now struggling just to keep their heads above water. Even those few who can afford paid versions of security and other online applications find it nearly impossible to make such purchases. No internationally accepted credit cards are available inside the country, and the sanctions imposed on its banking system have crippled Iranians' ability to remit money abroad.

The choking off of access to essential online technology is punishing a people already subject to relentless oppression by an increasingly totalitarian system. It also signifies the larger problem of the overzealous application of supposedly "smart" sanctions that extends them far beyond their intended targets and dumbs down their effects in flagrantly counterproductive ways.

While the regime in Tehran and its loyalist beneficiaries exploit the nation's resources to circumvent sanctions, ordinary Iranians bear most of their ever-growing weight. The death of Sattar Beheshti is a reminder of the extravagant price that the overstretched sanctions regimen is exacting from the Iranian people.

related reading | The Courage of Sattar Beheshti | A Swift End for the Innocent: The Sanctions Hit Home | Oppression 2.0: Iranian Discontent in Cyberspace

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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