Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

IRAN: Censors Fail to Silence Cyber-Activists

Sara Farhang

TEHRAN, Jul 7 2009 (IPS) - To mark the tenth anniversary of Iran's student uprising in 1999 amid the continued rejection by many voters of the results of the disputed Jun. 12 election, student activists issued a national call to protest last week.

Iranians and supporters of the reformist protesters rally in Berlin on Jul. 5, 2009. Credit: lasse-san/flickr/creative commons

Iranians and supporters of the reformist protesters rally in Berlin on Jul. 5, 2009. Credit: lasse-san/flickr/creative commons

However, given the harsh crackdown against protesters in the past three weeks, it is unlikely that a large number of demonstrators will turn out.

Still, the call has been taken seriously by authorities, who have once again shut down mobile text messaging or Short Message Service (SMS). The prevalence of mobile phones and the relatively low cost use of text messaging have made this form of communication popular in Iran in recent years.

SMS was shut down on Jun. 11, the day before Iranians went to the polls. The three presidential candidates standing against incumbent and ostensible winner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met the action of the state telecommunications company with objections, claiming that shutting down SMS made it impossible for election observers from their campaigns to communicate with one another.

The candidates cited the action as part of larger election irregularities and fraud.

SMS was cut off in the provinces for 10 and was only made available in Tehran on Jul. 1, though at reduced speeds of transmission.

Security forces intent on stopping the free flow of information and communication took other measures as well.

Over the past three weeks, and starting the day before the elections, Iranians witnessed interruptions in all forms of technical communication available to them, including the filtering and blocking of internet sites, email and internet interception, and even disruption in the mobile and telephone services – especially in areas where protests were taking place.

The day before the elections, a slew of Farsi-language news sites were filtered, including ones belonging to Ahmadinejad's top challenger, reformist candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi. The filtering of websites has continued since then, afflicting even official sites such as Parliament news, belonging to the reformist faction within the parliament.

While it is difficult to estimate the number of internet users in Iran, Internet World Stats places that figure at 23 million, or nearly 35 percent of the population. With over 60 percent of Iranians under the age of 30, it is assumed that most internet users in Iran tend to be young.

"The government's suspension of text messaging services and the filtering of internet news sites was part of a larger effort to stop the free flow of news and information, as well as communication with the outside world and among Iranian citizens," said Ryan, a network engineer with expertise in internet security systems who, like others interviewed for this story, asked that only his first name be used.

Despite these limitations, Iranians were still able to use social networking sites to get out news about the election and convey stories of the protests and the violence that ensued to an international audience.

In fact, Facebook and YouTube were widely used prior to the elections for communication and as a campaign tool.

When Facebook was blocked by authorities in the weeks leading to the election, candidates objected. Within a couple of days, the filter on Facebook was removed and supporters of Moussavi and reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi resumed their campaign activities on the site.

Facebook and Twitter, a micro-blogging site, were not filtered again until a few days after the results of the elections were announced.

Twitter was not a very popular medium in Iran, "but after regular channels of communication were shut down, people started looking for new ways of communicating their messages," said Ryan. "Twitter was one of them."

The first groups to tell the outside world about the possibility of fraud in the elections and about the protests, according to Ryan, were Twitter users.

"Twitter was a tool mostly used by Internet and technology geeks," said Reza, an Iranian blogger who had been using Twitter for some time. "Prior to the elections most posts were in Farsi and intended for a national audience, but immediately after the results of the elections were announced, many of those tweeting from inside Iran started doing so in English."

Iranian authorities became sensitive to Twitter and Facebook after several Farsi-language news sites used information provided through these mediums in their broadcasts. The Centre for Organised Cyber Crimes of the Revolutionary Guards issued a statement warning against use of cyberspace to "promote riots, threaten the public, and disperse rumors," promising to take legal action.

The Centre further advised that the protests were a result of preplanned scenarios and that its investigation had found numerous websites with misleading news intent on disrupting public opinion and promoting street riots. The Revolutionary Guards also urged editors of websites to delete this type of content or face legal consequences.

After that announcement, many Iranians using Twitter made their accounts private, so that only people they knew and trusted could access their posts. In an effort to ensure security, users started eliminating the names of those who posted tweets.

Those sending emails started to take precautions as well, by setting up new accounts with pseudonyms. Many users of gmail, the website Google's mail service, began using its security setting, which makes interception of email very difficult. People on mass-mailing email lists began providing information to their friends about how they can be secure and anonymous on the internet.

According to Ryan, authorities also significantly reduced internet speed, so as to make the process of uploading films and photos more difficult. Iranian hackers responded in kind, by hacking sites belonging to the government.

"I know that the site of the IRIB, the state broadcast system, was hacked, and pictures of the protests and violence were placed on this site," Ryan said. "Also Iranian users launched a Distributed Denial of Service Attack on several conservative and official sites such as Fars News, Press TV, Raja News, and Ahmadinejad's personal website."

A Distributed Denial of Service Attack occurs when a large number of users log onto a site and in a coordinated move keep refreshing the site, so that the site is unable to respond to new visitors, sending a message indicating so.

Recently there has been international condemnation of Nokia-Siemens for selling spy equipment to the Iranian government. Nokia-Siemens claims that this equipment is the usual fare sold to all governments and is intended for legal interception.

"We have known for some time that the government is able to spy on our telephone and internet communications," said Maryam, a human rights activist. "There have been many instances when activists are presented with printed copies of their emails and internet communications while they are in interrogation or detention. We know that our telephone communications are monitored."

"In fact, mobile and SMS communication are easiest to monitor," added Maryam.

In an effort to thwart authorities and to ensure their safety as well as access-blocked sites, many Iranians are now using proxies and anonymisers.

"Proxies don't work so well, because they are quickly identified and blocked," said Ryan. "Many used Freegate [the programme developed for China to bypass internet censorship] to access blocked sites. But due to high usage by Iranians that service is either no longer available or is only available in a limited manner."

According to Ryan, Virtual Private Networks and anonymisers which don't reduce internet speed are good solutions for internet users in Iran, who may be facing jail terms for their activities on the internet.

As for mobile phones and SMS, Maryam said that "people just need to be careful about what they say on the phone."

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