Iranians Bypass Net-Censors With High-Tech Tools

(AP Photo/Ben Curtis)


A new generation of Iranians has found ways to bypass the country's notoriously censorial Internet restrictions and disseminate details about Iran's internal turmoil in the wake of the recent election.

In technical circles, at least, Iran is well-known for erecting one of the world's most restrictive Internet blockades, second only to China in its scope. Certain blogs are cordoned off, politically-unacceptable keywords are blocked, and Web sites like Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, the BBC, and YouTube remain -- at least at the moment -- off-limits.

That has complicated the task of distributing videos and e-mail descriptions of the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marching in the streets to protest the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Supporters of reformist leader Mir Hossein Mousavi have alleged that the election was a fraud.

But the government's censors have been unable to staunch every data leak. "The bottom line is that a lot of information is still getting out," says Zahir Janmohamed, advocacy director of the Middle East and North Africa for Amnesty International USA.

Some of the online restrictions appeared around the time of the election: that's when Facebook, BBC English (BBC Persia was already blocked), Technorati.com, and YouTube were added to the verboten-in-Iran list. One report says that YouTube's traffic from Iran has dropped by 90 percent in the last few days, and another says that Yahoo Messenger was blocked early Wednesday. Unconfirmed reports from Iran say Twitter.com is also blocked.

One way around the government's online blockades is to find the electronic equivalent of a detour, which involves using something known as a proxy server.

Here's how it works: Normally, a Web browser makes a connection directly to a Web site's Internet address. But that address can be easily discovered and added to the government's blacklist. The trick is to redirect Web browsing through a proxy, which could be a permanent commercial service or someone volunteering his or her computer temporarily.

Then, instead of the relatively easy task of blocking Facebook.com or YouTube.com, the Iranian government has the far more difficult job -- in practice, an impossible one -- of identifying and blacklisting thousands of individual proxy servers.

In the last few days, Web sites like proxysetupforiran.blogspot.com have sprouted, as have exhortations to engage in a bit of social activism by creating your own proxy server, complete with detailed instructions on how to do it.

Twitter is abuzz with information on how to set up proxies and tips on how to keep addresses known to correspond to Iranian government computers from using them. Other sites have suggested filter-bypassing utilities like a Firefox plug-in that bypasses bans on connecting to Flickr.com or software called FreeAccess Plus that claims to circumvent restrictions on YouTube, MySpace, and some Persian-language sites blocked by Iran.

Similarly, Iranian usage of the Tor anonymizing network has spiked. "We have seen a doubling of Tor users from IP addresses in Iran over the last few days," says Andrew Lewman, executive director of The Tor Project.

Think of Tor as a far more complex and powerful version of a proxy server; once a computer with the right software installed connects to the Tor network, the rest of the connection becomes very difficult for even government agencies to monitor. Unlike some Web-based anonymizers or proxy servers, Tor can handle instant messaging communications as well.

Tor's public addresses can be blocked, of course, but enterprising individuals can set up private entry points. "You act as a secure relay into the Tor network," Lewman says, referring to private entry points. "From someone watching it, it looks like an SSL session between a browser and a web server, so it doesn't stand out. We look like SSL by design, because who's going to suspect a web browser?" (SSL stands for Secure Sockets Layer, the standard method of encrypting Web connections to banks or credit card companies. There have been reports that Iran is blocking SSL too.)

A Web site called iran.whyweprotest.net has recommended Iranians use Tor to cloak their identities and bypass government filters; a related one called TorIR.org offers instructions on how to configure the software for most common Web browsers.

Daniel Calingaert, deputy director of programs at Freedom House, a human rights group, says Iranian authorities have been focused on jamming phones and satellite connections and have not paid as much attention to the Internet.

"They're still focused on cat and mouse games with satellite broadcasting," Calingaert says. "They had jammed BBC Persia, which is probably the most respected and known source of news. And then we've heard that BBC moved to different frequencies. A lot of people are able to get it. It varies based on time of day and neighborhood."

Janmohamed, from Amnesty International USA, says that because SMS text messages are curbed, Iranians have been using the Twitter application on mobile phones as an alternative. And now, he believes, the government has begun to pay attention. "When I look at the pattern of arrests from Saturday to today, initially you had the Mousavi supporters, the Calvin Klein activists -- the urban elites -- and now you're getting people of all different backgrounds," he says. "They're cracking down on a wider group of people."

According to the OpenNet Initiative, a collaboration of Harvard University, the University of Toronto, the University of Cambridge, and Oxford University, Iran "uses the commercial filtering package SmartFilter -- made by the U.S.-based company, Secure Computing -- as the primary technical engine of its filtering system."

McAfee now owns Secure Computing and sells the software as McAfee SmartFilter; a product description boasts of "a proven repository of more than 25 million blockable websites across more than 90 categories." (A U.S. economic embargo against Iran prohibits software licensing and the company has said in the past that the software is pirated. McAfee did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain, an OpenNet contributor, wrote in a blog post this week that "today Iran runs its own home-grown filtering software.)

Even if Iranians can't always secure a reliable Internet connection to the outside world, they nevertheless have a potent voice: the Iranian and Persian diaspora, amounting to millions of former residents living abroad. It just takes one e-mail message with a video or photo attached for the contents to rocket around the diaspora and eventually end up on a place like TehranBureau.com. In a pinch, a simple phone call to a family member abroad can be transcribed for a Twitter feed.

Freedom House's Calingaert says: "What makes this situation different from others and is driving a lot of it is that you have a very large and vibrant online and blgoger community of Iranians outside the country."

"People are really bypassing channels though Facebook and Twitter and contacting their cousins," Amnesty's Janmohamd adds. "You've got one of the largest Iranian diasporas in Los Angeles. Information is getting out there."

Updated 11:14pm ET with more information on Iran's filters.

  • Declan McCullagh On Twitter»

    Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.

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