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Lifting Iran's electronic curtain means keeping up with the cyber army

(Freedom House/IFEX) - 7 February 2013 - Last year, in remarks commemorating Nowruz, the Persian New Year, President Barack Obama referred to Iran's strict control over what citizens can say and see online as an “electronic curtain” and announced new guidelines to help “American businesses provide software and services into Iran that will make it easier for Iranians to use the internet.”

This announcement occurred just days after Iran's March 2012 parliamentary elections, when authorities demonstrated their new ability to filter certain internet traffic while allowing approved activity to continue uninterrupted. At the first whiff of pre-election disruptions, authorities blocked all encrypted international traffic, such as Gmail, without the need to shut down encrypted domestic traffic, such as banking, or the entire network.

With the upcoming presidential elections in Iran on 14 June 2013, the international community—particularly election monitors and free expression activists—should be very worried about the plight of Iran's netizens. They rely heavily on circumvention tools, such as virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxy websites, to access the tens of thousands of websites blocked by Iran's centralized filtering system, but observers say this practice is not keeping pace with Iran's expanding capability for online repression.

According to Freedom on the Net 2012, a report released by Freedom House in September 2012, Iran ranked at the very bottom of the 47 countries assessed, joining other offenders like Cuba, Syria, Ethiopia and Burma. The report identifies an overarching trend in Iran in which both online content produced in country and offline activities sparked by online communications have dropped dramatically. Netizens fear the increasingly sophisticated censorship and surveillance technologies, as well as the fate of numerous bloggers, digital activists and online journalists who have faced arbitrary detention, harsh prison sentences and even death, such as blogger Sattar Beheshti, who died in the custody of Iran's cyberpolice in November 2012.

In early January, the regime announced it was developing software that allows for “smart control” of social networking websites. This news came just weeks after the appearance of a seemingly official Facebook page devoted to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, despite the site being blocked for Iranian citizens. This has led many to believe that authorities may consider unblocking Facebook, which is not necessarily good news. Many repressive countries allow access to Facebook because security forces find it useful to track and infiltrate group and individual accounts, a perfect assignment in the lead up to the presidential elections for the Iranian Cyber Army's 2,000 hackers and pro-government bloggers.

Increased digital violence in advance of politically contested seasons is common under authoritarian regimes, and Iran is no exception. For example, ahead of the March 2012 parliamentary elections, the Cyber Army carried out hacking and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on domestic and international websites tied to opposition leaders, international media, and others who published calls to boycott, protest, or question the credibility of the polls. Last month, Mr. Khamenei warned Iranians to cease calls for free elections, claiming that it “aids the enemy.” This had the ironic effect of triggering a spike in online searches and discussions about conditions for free and fair voting in Iran. Soon after, more than a dozen independent journalists were arrested in what is perceived to be sending a message to news media outlets to be cautious in their election coverage, which is reminiscent of early 2012, when six journalists and bloggers were detained ahead of the parliamentary elections.

In addition to using digital violence to crack down on opposition and civil society, the regime also employs rigorous surveillance and uses vaguely-worded legislation to criminalize differing opinions. In March 2012, new regulations on cybercafes took effect requiring customers to provide extensive personal information, which owners must store for six months, along with customers' browsing history and closed-circuit surveillance video. Likewise, the 2009 Computer Crime Law (CCL) obliges ISPs to record all the data exchanged by their users for six months. Under the law, internet users and service providers can be prosecuted and severely punished for content that is deemed to damage “public morality” or to be a “dissemination of lies.”

Iran's electronic curtain grows more layered and opaque as authorities command fast-changing technologies to their advantage. If Mr. Obama wants to see “a time when the electronic curtain that divides us is lifted and your voices are heard” during his remaining term as U.S. president, then his administration and partner nations must act quickly—preferably before Iran's presidential elections in June—to ensure that the software and services that reach Iranian netizens can rise to the challenge.

By Gigi Alford

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