Iran Human RightsIran's web crackdown shows ease of government internet censorship

Iran’s web crackdown shows ease of government internet censorship

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Wall Street Journal: Iran’s campaign to shutter popular Web sites and curtail text-message traffic reflects the growing ability of governments to control online content inside their national borders. The Wall Street Journal

By CHRISTOPHER RHOADS
December 5, 2006; Page A6

Iran’s campaign to shutter popular Web sites and curtail text-message traffic reflects the growing ability of governments to control online content inside their national borders.

The crackdown, reported earlier by Britain’s Guardian newspaper, is part of a broader offensive against what authorities consider immoral Western culture. It has targeted Web sites including Amazon.com, publicly edited online encyclopedia Wikipedia.com, movie Web site imdb.com and online video-sharing portal YouTube.com, among others. Some of these sites are working again, but the clampdown is consistent with a tightening of online content in Iran dating back two years.

The blockage isn’t airtight, as more-savvy Internet users in the country have access to software and other measures that allow them to get around government restrictions, Internet experts say. It is uncertain how long the restrictions will last.

Iran is one of a host of nations that have taken steps to limit access to the Internet or control what users can see in cyberspace. Others that have taken such steps include China, Cuba and North Korea. Tehran’s recent actions are noteworthy given the country’s flourishing and relatively free Internet culture in recent years. Iran has an estimated 7.5 million users, up from 250,000 six years ago, according to InternetWorldStats.com. A lively blogosphere emerged in recent years, as state control of the country’s traditional print media increased.

Arash Sigarchi, for example, was a member of the reformist press that developed under President Mohammad Khatami in the late-1990s. When this media was shut down in 2000, Mr. Sigarchi began blogging on a collective site called “The Man from Gilan,” and later on his own personal site, called “The Window of Hope.” The now 28-year-old Mr. Sigarchi was arrested in early 2005 and sentenced to 14 years in prison for “propaganda against the regime,” according to Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based press-freedom group.

As Internet usage has increased in more countries, so has the ability of governments to restrict the online experience within their countries.

“Countries with the political ability and desire to limit info will do so,” said Robert Faris, director of research for a global project on Internet filtering at the Berkman Center for Society and Internet at Harvard Law School. “The technical means are available now.”

The Internet crackdown in Iran reflects efforts by the Islamist government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to cleanse Iran of what its leaders deem decadent Western culture, including music and movies. Government authorities in recent days have broached several new measures, such as requiring bloggers and operators of Web sites to register with an official body, strengthening the government’s ability to police what it views as objectionable content.

The government began tightening its grip on the Internet two years ago, when it arrested a handful of bloggers and others whose writings were deemed offensive, according to Reporters Without Borders. One blogger, Mojtaba Saminejad, faced the death penalty for “insulting the prophets,” but was found guilty of a lesser charge.

Last month, the government blocked two Web sites, tik.ir and meydann.com. The first contained criticism of the government and its spiritual leadership, and the second published articles calling for an end to the stoning of women, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The government has also taken the unusual step of attempting to curtail the speed of Internet access, essentially banning broadband.

“It’s weird” said Julian Pain, head of the Internet freedom desk for Reporters Without Borders, because limiting connection speed not only curbs dissidents but “economically has a huge impact.” Trade, government business and private-sector activities can all be hurt by hobbled Internet speeds, he said.

Tools to get around restrictions are spreading quickly. The University of Toronto, for example, late last month announced a program called psiphon, which works on the principle of social networking. It enables a person in an uncensored country who downloads the software to turn his computer into an access point for users in censored countries. People in censored countries can use the computer as a proxy to access the broader Internet without detection by authorities.

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