Unintended Consequences of U.S. Sanctions Against Iran: Internet Censorship
Financial and trade sanctions imposed on Iran have failed to bring the regime to its knees but they have hamstrung efforts by dissidents to spread their message on the Internet because the latest technology and payment methods are barred.
The Green Movement, which grew out of opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election last June, has had some success in using the internet as a battleground at a time when foreign and domestic media have been banned from reporting from inside Iran.
While web access is severely limited, many in the movement believe that video of opposition protests gets to the outside world within hours thanks to sympathizers who work in government offices where the internet is unrestricted.
The impact of the internet at home has been limited, since, according to official statistics, 70 percent of the people do not have internet access and high speed internet is limited to two per cent of users.
The internet infrastructure is weak and connecting to any network is expensive. Internet distribution is completely government-owned and is subject to one of the most advanced filtering systems in the world.
In September 2005, the chief executive of Iranian company Delta Global, Rahim Azimi, said in an interview that his company had won a government contract worth seven million US dollars to provide technology that would filter at least nine million websites.
Rahimi told ISNA, a semi-official Iranian news agency, that many service providers in Iran were using American and European filtering software such as Smartfilter, Websense, and Webwasher.
Some internet service providers, ISPs, have told their customers off the record that filtering is carried out by the government-owned Telecommunications of Iran Company, TIC, and the ISPs have no role in the matter.
The use of this method of filtering results in the quick blocking of newly-launched websites and the ineffectiveness of proxy servers that are commonly used to bypass filtering.
One new organization, Nedanet, aims to help people inside Iran use proxy servers. Software called Haystack that is under development but is aimed at Iranians, is intended to fool censors by obfuscating web content.
Many experts following the filtering situation in Iran believe government methods used for web control and cracking down on dissidents have drastically changed.
Morgan Sennhauser, Nedanet project coordinator, who has published reports containing details of efforts made by the Iranian government to counter hacking activities, says the Iranian government's measures have been surprisingly successful and they have even surpassed the Chinese government in censorship terms.
Iranian police chief Brigadier General Ismail Ahmadi-Moqqadam recently warned the opposition that not only their text messages but also their personal emails were being monitored. He even threatened internet users that rely on proxy servers and anti-filtering software would not help them hide their identities from the police.
While many believe such statements to be bluff aimed at instilling fear in citizens by the state, the wave of arrests and the persecution of internet activists in recent months shows that the Iranian government sees the internet as one of its main security challenges.
In one recent court hearing of five protesters, the main charges were uploading videos of the protests on the internet and contacting anti-government groups abroad by email.
Some Iranians believe the government spends large amounts of money employing foreign hackers to shut down opposition websites. During the recent presidential campaign, almost all websites belonging to the opposition came under anonymous cyber attack -- and, after the election, these websites were blocked.
The Green Movement has managed to strengthen its online presence despite these restrictions. While the Iranian government reduces the speed of the internet on days when there are demonstrations to obstruct the flow of information from inside the country, within hours of street protests, a large number of videos are uploaded to the web.
Dissidents think their supporters in government offices with unrestricted web access help get the pictures out.
Aside from internal obstacles, restrictions by international internet companies are also frustrating Iranian web users. The majority of these restrictions were imposed after the international community, and in particular the United States, imposed harsh sanctions against Iran.
Although these sanctions are mostly aimed at putting pressure on the Tehran government, ordinary internet users trying to evade state censorship are the ones who suffer. The majority of websites providing software, either free or paid-for, prohibit Iranians from downloading.
On December 29, 2009 the official Google weblog published an entry written in support of the Green Movement and in appreciation of its uploading of amateur videos of opposition protests on YouTube. However, Google Inc does not allow Iranians to download its Google Chrome, Google Talk, Google Code or Picasa software that are extremely popular among Green Movement.
A large number of security applications such as tunnelling or secure shell software, which create protected links between two points, are inaccessible to Iranians.
United States financial institutions are barred from dealing with Iran and that cuts off many routes.
Foreign companies have blocked almost all access to online shopping and financial transactions from Iran. If anyone in Iran buys software from abroad using a foreign account, their internet address will reveal their location and the bank account will be frozen.
Websites selling internet domains and hosting services will not provide services to Iranians and internet phone company Skype, which would provide Iranian dissidents with a safe means of communication via its messenger, does not allow Iranian internet addresses or let Iranians buy credit.
Even a large open source software resource recently changed its rules to stop Iranians from using it.
Without these restrictions, dissidents would find it easier to communicate and create websites but the internet does not distinguish between an ordinary citizen and a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, so all are barred.
The administration, however, can easily bypass the restrictions and government organizations have gained access to the most advanced computer technologies.
The Iranian government's agents, stationed in countries that that are not under sanctions, assist it in meeting its internet demands, though it tries to minimize reliance on facilities abroad.
The Washington Times on December 18 reported that the Obama administration had lifted some of its internet sanctions on Iranians. The report said the decision was aimed at alleviating the concerns of internet companies reluctant to offer services to the people of countries that are under sanctions.
How this will benefit internet users is unclear but a recent study found that downloading the most commonly-used internet software such as Google and Yahoo messengers is still forbidden to Iranians.
While United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton, in a speech in January, criticized Iran for its strict internet censorship and filtering, she failed to acknowledge that the Tehran government can thank the US for sanctions that have crippled its opposition in cyberspace.
Dissidents can only hope that all that will change soon.