The Great Persian Firewall


In the days of the Cold War, the free flow of information into the Warsaw Pact countries was blocked by a literal “iron curtain” of steel fences and mines. Now, the control of electrons — not border crossings — has become crucial to keeping your populace in the dark, a lesson the repressive regime of Iran, long fearful of the potential of the Internet, appears to have learned well. Still, all is not yet lost; as the Iranian regime’s control over electronic media grows ever tighter, the United States is doing everything it can to ensure Iranians retain access to an open web.

Unfortunately for the citizens of Iran, September 23 marked yet another day on which the country’s Internet freedom suffered a major blow. An Iranian government minister announced that Google’s search engine and email service have now been blocked, a move that suggests Tehran’s plans to completely control external Internet access for Iranian citizens are gaining momentum.

Iran announced earlier in the year that it considered Google a tool of Western espionage and that it was developing a domestic alternative dubbed “Yahaq,” or “Oh Lord” in Farsi. Such a tool is likely only to bring up search results palatable to the regime. The announcement that Google was now cut off did not say that Yahaq was now active (an intentional omission?), but since the earlier regime announcement specifically said Yahaq was being developed as an alternative to Google, it is reasonable to infer that Iran’s regime has or soon will have Yahaq up and running.

This blow to Iran’s Internet freedom is only the latest in a series of major attacks on Internet freedom that began in 2009. After Iran’s 2009 presidential elections, which many Iranians considered rigged, Tehran turned bandwidth down to a dribbling flow. This wickedly simple tactic made it almost impossible for average citizens to share amateur video of the regime’s brutal tactics in suppressing post-election demonstrations. Later in the year, Iran announced the creation of a “cyber-police,” banning thousands of websites and any content deemed “insulting.”

Iran’s suppressive efforts have only accelerated since. In summer 2011, Iran announced plans to build an internal Internet, completely isolated from the outside world, spinning the move as an effort to build “a genuinely halal [lawful] network, aimed at Muslims on an ethical and moral level.” The government proclaimed that 60 percent of Iranian Internet users were already on the isolated system and that it intended the rest to be on the system within two years. The regime’s next major restriction came in December 2011: the regime started blocking reception of Persian-language satellite TV programming originating from the United States and Arab neighbors, such as Qatar, but it continued to broadcast its own state-supported propaganda “news” programming abroad — a move that international news organizations condemned as blatantly hypocritical. Iran also initiated “denial of service” attacks against Voice of America’s Persian language service, Radio Farda, to shut down its website and jam phone lines during call-in shows.

In January 2012, Iran’s cyber-police arrested two men and two women, not for any sort of anti-regime activity or even “insulting statements,” but for an even graver crime — constructing a Facebook page where Iranians could vote on whether photos of people on the page were attractive. In the same month, the Iranian regime also announced new rules requiring people who use Internet cafes to provide personal information.

Fortunately for Iranians who’d prefer their online content unfiltered, the United States is battling back.

The little-known U.S. federal agency that funds the Voice of America, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), is on the frontlines of the battle for electronic freedom. The BBG has deployed advanced shielding technology that allows Internet users to go nearly anywhere on the Internet. One free piece of BBG-sponsored software is TOR, which routes Internet browsing through several countries in an effort to hide who is looking at what. Another is Ultrasurf, which sends an Internet user to a different Internet address when government monitors try to shut down the site that he or she is viewing. A third is Psiphon, which moves the BBG’s country-specific web pages (e.g., Radio Farda) to temporary Internet addresses, where they can stay live for a few more days, until found and blocked by repressive regimes. Then the electronic cat-and-mouse game of moving sites begins anew.

The U.S. State Department has also entered the fight, commissioning the New America Foundation to create the “Commotion” project. Commotion is a portable device designed to be smuggled across borders and which, once activated, would provide wireless Internet access to the global Internet over a wide area. The device creates a “mesh network” that can convert smartphones or PCs into a wireless web with no central hub, theoretically bypassing a hostile regime’s monitoring efforts.

Intriguing as Commotion sounds in theory, Sunday’s news on the ban of Google in Iran illustrates how close the race is between the development of tools to battle Internet restrictions and Iran’s efforts to build an isolated internal Internet. Commotion has completed initial proof-of-concept work, but the final release, which at the beginning of the year had been projected for September 2012, has now been moved back to an unspecified date. The key missing piece of the puzzle, assuming Commotion does become reality, is who is going to smuggle the hardware into Iran? Even assuming Commotion works as advertised, that is a question on which the State Department has so far been silent.

Fortunately, its actions — and those of the BBG — have spoken quite loudly.

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