Iran’s election will not be tweeted
Co-authored by Clare Richardson.
As Iran’s tightly-controlled June 14th presidential election approaches, observers worldwide are scouring the Web for tweets, photos and videos that offer hints of events inside the country. Yet to the dismay of overseas opposition groups, the Iranian government has mounted a sophisticated — and so far largely successful — effort to choke off Internet access inside the country.
“More than a month ago, we saw how the speed of the Internet shut down,” said Trita Parsi, president of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council. “They started to make it much more difficult for people to Skype with the outside world.”
At the same time, an American government effort to provide Internet to Iranian dissidents by developing devices that create illicit web access or evade electronic surveillance – so-called “Internet-in-a suitcase” – remains underfunded and not yet fielded. Internet freedom experts warn that unless there is an exponential increase in funding, the U.S. won’t catch up with regime tactics.
“The U.S. State Department is helping develop a number of general-use surveillance circumvention technologies,” Sascha Meinrath, founder of the Commotion Wireless Project, a non-profit group trying to build such devices, said in an email. “These efforts are, however, incredibly modest and need to be dramatically scaled up to keep apace of efforts by authoritarian regimes to crack down on open communications.”
Meinrath, whose group receives State Department funding, said the American government lacks a clear strategy.
“There are multiple tactics the U.S. government should pursue to broadcast broadband into areas where communications is surveilled and censored,” he said. “And, unfortunately, authoritarian regimes are getting smarter and smarter about the ways in which they surveille and censor.”
The Iranian effort to limit Internet access is more sophisticated than the one it mounted in 2009, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians protested the election results. The Internet played an important role in organizing protests and disseminating information in the so-called “Green Revolution.” The government wants to limit the forum for political dissidence by tightening controls this year.
Some level of Web censorship exists year-round in Iran, as the government blocks sites it deems unfavorable. Twitter and Facebook are off-limits, while Instagram escapes censure so far. Usually people use several methods to get around the blocks, but as the election nears many of these tactics are no longer successful.
Ian Schuler, an online rights advocate and the former director of the Internet Freedom Programs for the State Department, said an Iranian government effort to cut off communications with the outside world emerged over the last two months. A variety of measures — some simple, some sophisticated — have made it difficult for people inside the country to use programs that allow them to hide their identities when posting material for the outside world to see.
“Starting in March, Iran cut access to VPNs, a popular tool for accessing blocked content,” Schuler said, referring to Virtual Private Networks. “Last month, they started dropping connections of longer than 60 seconds to all but government-approved sites. This move rendered ineffective most circumvention tools, such as Tor and Ultrareach.”
The blackout, however, is not absolute. Pro-government businesses and official agencies that need high-speed Internet access are permitted to use VPNs. A country-wide shutdown is not in Iran’s interest, as closing off Internet access entirely would create enormous economic disruptions.
The Iranian government has another answer for how to shut off the Internet without hampering its own communications and stifling international business. Since 2009, Iran has been building its own state-controlled intranet within the country, dubbed “halal net.”
Alec Ross, who served as the State Department’s Senior Adviser for Innovation under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, predicted the Iranian system would eventually fail. Ross says that Iranian youth will not accept electronic repression.
“Iran already has a vibrant digital culture with more than 100,000 blogs and smartphones everywhere,” Ross said in an email. “When the Thugocracy in Tehran tries to command and control Iran’s information environment, they are alienating a generation of Iranians who will be running that country in 15 years.”
Surprisingly, some of the Iran’s surveillance technology comes indirectly from well-known U.S. firms by way of China. A March 2012 Reuters investigation found that the China-based company ZTE Corp sold powerful surveillance equipment to the Islamic Republic’s government-controlled telecommunications company. Despite sanctions prohibiting the sale of U.S. technology to Iran, the Chinese firm was able to sell U.S. products from its partnerships with American firms.
Collin Anderson, an independent researcher who focuses on Internet filtering and censorship in the Middle East, said events over the next two weeks may show Iran’s cut-off is not as successful as seems. This week, for example, a video was posted online showing protests against Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei during the funeral of a dissident cleric.
Anderson said that a repeat of the 2009 protests was unlikely, but he calculates that news of what is happening inside the country will leak out.
Without credible polls, the elections themselves are unpredictable. Meanwhile, the cat-and-mouse game between the Iranian regime and Internet users undermines the credibility of the elections.
“The regime has essentially decided that true legitimacy is not within reach,” the National Iranian American Council’s Parsi notes. “The perception of legitimacy is not worth it if it comes at the cost of having to deal with more disturbances.”