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US Set to Relax Internet Restrictions Towards Iran, Syria and Cuba

This morning the New York Times quotes a ‘senior administration official’ who says that the US is set to relax sanctions against Iran, Syria and Cuba to allow US companies such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to allow downloads of personal Web-based services in those countries. Around the water cooler this morning, my colleague Jill York correctly pointed out that the article appears to conflate too many things together when it describes ‘Internet services’ that are currently banned, and that might be allowed as part of the planned waiver. My understanding is that any service that is based ‘in the cloud’ (gmail, twitter, etc.) is currently allowed to be used in Iran, Syria and Cuba because they do not require users to download software to use those services. It seems that Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is considering a blanket waiver that will permit US companies to allow users in those sanctioned countries to also use services (such as MSN chat) that require a download. It’s not clear if the type of software downloads will be limited to ‘communications’ services, or if broader downloads of services such as Google Earth or Adobe Photoshop will be allowed. It strikes me that the broader the type of downloads allowed the better, since the more services available not only allow for greater creativity in how users mash-up blogs, video, photos, email, etc., but that also makes it harder for states to block one type of service if many are available and being used together. However, given that circumvention tools will not be included in this waiver, it appears that the language may be fairly restrictive. Regardless of how the technicalities shake out, this seems like a positive step forward and I’m hopeful even smaller companies like Blue Host, that have been denying use of their Web hosting service in any country with even fairly limited US sanctions, will again make their services more widely available.

UPDATE: Here’s the official Treasury announcement and the updated rule–looks like Syria loses out on this one. From Deputy Treasury Secretary Wolin:

The new general licenses authorize exports from the United States or by U.S. persons to persons in Iran and Sudan of services and software related to the exchange of personal communications over the Internet, including web browsing, blogging, email, instant messaging, and chat; social networking; and photo and movie sharing. Today’s amendments also provide that specific licenses may be issued on a case-by-case basis for the exportation of services and software used to share information over the Internet that not covered by the general licenses.

USIP Online Iran Event

Our friends over at USIP are hosting a discussion right now on Iran and welcome your online participation. Twitter users can follow the discussion at #usipiran. Here’s some background on the event from the organizers, with what looks like a very interesting group of panelists:

US Institute of Peace online event on Iran’s Regime and Opposition Movement

The US Institute of Peace will be holding an event on February 1 from 10 am to 12 pm (Eastern) entitled “A Revolution Undone?: Regime and Opposition in Iran. ” It will explore how the evolving clash between regime and opposition affects the stability of the Islamic Republic, on the one hand, and its foreign relations, on the other. It will feature former Iranian parliament member, Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, as well as scholars such as Daniel Brumberg (Acting Director of USIP’s Muslim World Initiative) and Robin
Wright (prominent journalist and author on Iran and the Middle East), among others.

USIP will be webcasting the event while maintaining live chat and Twitter discussions during the webcast. (Twitter hashtag: #usipiran). Questions from the online audiencewill be put to the panel. It promises to be an exciting talk.

You can find information about the event (here)

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China and Iran Lead Way in Detention of Journalists

According to a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, China and Iran are the leading jailers of journalists in the world, with those two states accounting for more than a third of all journalists held behind bars today. Increased arrests by Iran following post-election protests helped make 2009 even worse than 2008, with 11 more arrested worldwide this year than last. In its annual census, the CPJ also found that freelancers (who often write online) are more likely to be jailed than their counterparts at traditional news outlets. Last year was the first time ever that online journalists were more likely to be jailed than traditional ones.

If Iran had thrown just one more journalist in jail on December 1, it would have tied China (which has 24 journalists behind bars), as the leading jailer, a title China has held for the last 11 years. As Joel Simon writes in Slate, as opposed to 10 years ago when most of those Chinese journalists wrote for traditional media outlets, today they are primarily online authors, and this impacts how they are handled by the government:

[O]nline journalists can’t be fired, blacklisted, or, in most cases, bought off precisely because most work independently. They don’t have employers who can be pressured. Chinese authorities have few options when it comes to reining in online critics—censor them, intimidate them, or throw them in jail. This explains why 18 of the 24 journalists imprisoned in China worked online.

In Iran, there’s a similar dynamic. The 23 reporters jailed there fall roughly into two camps—those who worked for print media outlets allied with opposition candidates and those who worked independently online.

Iran Continues to Tighten Control Over Internet, Media

This New York Times piece nicely summarizes recent moves by the Iranian regime and the Revolutionary Guards to further clamp down on Iran’s already tightly controlled information space. The Times argues that the government is stepping up its ‘soft war’ in order to “re-educate Iran’s mostly young and restive population” by:

…implanting 6,000 Basij militia centers in elementary schools across Iran to promote the ideals of the Islamic Revolution, and it has created a new police unit to sweep the Internet for dissident voices. A company affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards acquired a majority share in the nation’s telecommunications monopoly this year, giving the Guards de facto control of Iran’s land lines, Internet providers and two cellphone companies. And in the spring, the Revolutionary Guards plan to open a news agency with print, photo and television elements.

As the article notes, these efforts to fight a ‘soft war’ seems to indicate the growing influence of the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, which some, like Abbas Milani, argue are more powerful than even the Supreme Leader.

In the end, however, these moves may be futile. The ‘police unit’ to monitor the Internet has only 12 people. Satellite TV has been illegal for years in Iran, and yet by the regime’s own account 40% of households have access to it, twice as many as last year. There are occasional crack downs that try to clear satellite dishes from everyone’s rooftop, but they always go back up eventually. And finally, as NYU’s Mehrzad Boroujerdi says:

By trying to gain more control of the media, to re-Islamize schools, they think they can make a comeback. But the enemy here is Iran’s demographics. The Iranian population is overwhelmingly literate and young, and previous efforts to reinstall orthodoxy have only exacerbated cleavages between citizens and the state.

US Loosens Internet Restrictions on Iran and Cuba

Arguing that access to the flow of information on the Internet in Iran and Cuba is in line with US interests, the US Treasury has asked Google and Microsoft to give users in those two countries access to their chat services. This is a smart move, but just the beginning of what should be done to increase the flow on online speech in those countries.

Ethan Zuckerman fist noticed a disturbing trend earlier this year when Internet companies such as Bluehost and others began to use sanctions against countries like Zimbabwe, Iran, Syria and Sudan as an excuse to cut off service entirely to users in those countries, even if the users were human rights groups fighting against the governments that are the real target of the sanctions. Not long after he observed the problem in Zimbabwe, Bluehost shut out users in Iran, including leading bloggers like Kamangir. It seems that most firms, large and small, just shut off access to most of their products that require a software download out of fear of running afoul of US sanctions. In their cost-benefit analysis, it is just easier to shut off access and not look at the impact of those decisions on activists in those countries.

However, it seems that Microsoft has continued to allow citizens in Iran, Cuba and other sanctioned countries to use its Hotmail e-mail and Live Spaces blog service, since they are hosted in the cloud. This is possibly another argument in favor of cloud computing, where services are increasingly migrating lately, although it depends on where those services are hosted.

This is a good first step, but there is still much the US can do to ease restrictions on Internet speech and access to software and services provided by US companies in countries where we have the strictest sanction regimes.

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Iranian Opposition to Turn Quds Day Green, Rafsanjani Not Allowed to Speak

Hamid Tehrani over at Global Voices reports that the Iranian opposition plans to turn Quds Day, a day which many in the region mark to show their solidarity with Palestinians, into a day for supporting the protest movement as well. NiaclNsight also notes:

The 30th anniversary of the International Day of Quds will be Green this year, according to reformist websites in Iran. Opposition leaders Karroubi, Khatami, and Mousavi have all confirmed their participation in this important ceremony, which is traditionally held in every city of Iran.

Our research on the Arabic blogosphere showed that Palestine was the one issue that united the entire blogosphere, in particular last year’s war in Gaza, as well as Quds day and other pro-Palestine events such as Nakba Day, which marks the 1948 exodus from Palestine. My informal discussions with Arabic bloggers have also indicated strong support in that part of the Middle Eastern blogosphere for Iranian protesters after the election, so Friday has the potential to turn into a day of solidarity with the Iranian protest movement across the region. In an attempt to undercut their plans, the Iranian regime has banned opposition cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who normally speaks at Friday prayers on Quds day, from doing so this year.

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Iranian Prosecutor Blames Internet for Unrest

Prosecutors in Iran have indicted a student leader for using the Internet to spread false information and provoke unrest during election protests. The New York Times reports:

State television reported the indictment on Monday of a prominent student leader, Abdullah Momeni, who is accused of “spreading reports via Internet to provoke the unrest.” Reading from the indictment, Tehran’s deputy prosecutor, Ali Ahmad Akbari, said that that Facebook, the Internet and YouTube were “used as effective tools to organize illegal gatherings and to spread false information,” the ISNA student news agency reported.

The Times also reports that opposition leader Mehdi Karoubi struck back at the judicial panel that found no cases of abuse or rape of protesters in Iranian jails with more evidence and testimonials from victims. Hamid Tehrani also recently pointed to a number of sites that are commemorating the dozens of protesters that were killed after the election.

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Iranian Forced to Blog From Prison

Image Credit: The New Yorker

Image Credit: The New Yorker

Hamid Tehrani over at Global Voices reports today that Mohammad Ali Abtahi, the former vice president and well known blogger whose gaunt appearance in his show trial has spread virally across the Internet as proof that he has been tortured, is now being forced to blog from prison. Hamid summarizes the post:

“He says that the interrogation continues but he has very friendly relation with interrogator and protesters in prison know that there was no significant fraud in Iran’s presidential election.”

Yeah, right.

Clearly, his captors haven’t gotten the memo that the show trials, forced confessions and now blogging at gunpoint just aren’t working like they used to. As Laura Secor writes in this week’s New Yorker:

“Show trials have been staged before, most notably in Moscow in the nineteen-thirties. Typically, such rituals purge élites and scare the populace. They are the prelude to submission. Iran’s show trials, so far, have failed to accrue this fearsome power. In part, this is because the accused are connected to a mass movement: Iranians whose democratic aspirations have evolved organically within the culture of the Islamic Republic. It is one thing to persuade citizens that a narrow band of apparatchiks are enemies of the state. It is quite another to claim that a political agenda with broad support—for popular sovereignty, human rights, due process, freedom of speech—has been covertly planted by foreigners.”

Secor highlights later how the Iranians, and indeed those from around the world, have taken to the Internet to mock the entire show trial process and the ridiculous confessions that their interrogators have made up for them, kicked off by satarist Ebrahim Nabavi’s stripped pajama confession that he has met with the CIA, imported green velvet and cavorted with the likes of Angelina Jolie. As Secor concludes, “…the spectacle that was meant to produce compliance and terror instead has stoked fury and derision.”

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Twitter: Eye of the Beholder

Late last week Foreign Policy‘s Evgeny Morozov authored a piece entitled “Twitter: Think Again” in which he highlights a series of Twitter statements such as “Authoritarian regimes should fear Twitter,” Twitter was the best source of news about the post-election protests in Iran,” and “Twitter is a great organizing tool.” While he certainly underscores salient deficiencies in micro-blogging, many of his points target the platform, rather than the provider.  As explained by Harvard researcher Tim Hwang, innovator behind the Web Ecology Project:

“I think Morozov’s basic insight is right — there were gems of information popping up on Twitter throughout the #iranelection explosion, though it was quickly swamped out by noise, spam, and disinformation. However, this is only true if people take a naive view of Twitter as “just” the data stream. Simple methods like filtering the list of users with the highest number of RT’s or @’s give a much higher signal-to-noise in using Twitter as an information source. So while this time around and for most users Twitter may have been a fuzzy news source at best, this is a problem of platform design and available tools, rather than something inherent to the structure of Twitter or its users.”

While Twitter offers search, Facebook offers Lexicon to track wall-post trends, and Google offers Insights for Search, the value such services provide will increasingly become reliant on the ability to sift through, and determine what is truly important. Understanding trends may require deeper probing than is currently available through public interfaces, but such probing will likely invoke privacy concerns, impeding the facility of such analysis.  This science of “Web Ecology” will become increasingly relevant. The Internet ecosystem is only growing in its complexity. Platforms that empower citizen journalists can also enable opportunistic marketers. Faster content syndication can help broaden access to information, but it also facilitates spam.  Relevance is being conflated with noise, and dissection is intensive. As Google economist Hal Varian stated last week:

“…The sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians.  And I’m not kidding.”

And as Morozov concludes, the Twitter is in the eye of the beholder, and in the understanding of Web Ecology:

“Figuring out how to sift through all the noise and actually get hold of signal can be a challenging task… But ultimately it pays off. A carefully maintained Twitter feed can deliver you information that is far more diverse and interesting than it was in the pre-Twitter day.”

Bloggers React to Abtahi Photos, Show Trials


Hamid Tehrani at Global Voices shows us powerful images of leading reformist and blogger Mohammad Ali Abtahi before his arrest (left photo) and how he looks at last weekend’s trial (right photo), proof for many that he has been forced to confess. Hamid translates Iranian blogger Alfba’s reaction to the radical change in Abtahi’s appearance:

Dear Abtahi, we know you were under pressure and you family suffered a lot. You should know what you confess, we still love you. We support you.

Juan Cole provides further analysis of the trials and reaction, writing:

The trial of 100 leading protesters against the announced outcome of the June 12 presidential elections commenced on Saturday, complete with pitiful coerced recantations. Amazingly, former president Mohammad Khatami’s web site openly denounced the trial as just that, a show trial. Khatami’s problem was always that he was insufficiently willing to stand up to the hard liners, and that he is being so blunt and confrontational suggests to me that he has reached the end of his patience. He is likely furious about the regime torturing his own associates, such as his former vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi, into a confession.

But the Twitterverse may have summed it up best (my paraphrase of translation):

These trials are about as believable as Ahmadinejad’s 24 million votes.

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