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Circumvention in Iran and China

The Times has a front page article this morning (yes, I still read the hard copy) on circumvention in Iran and China, which highlights a lot of people and tools we’ve discussed on this blog before, including Tor and Psiphon. (You can learn about additional circumvention resources in our tools database.) The piece also mentions Rebecca MacKinnon’s research, which we wrote about here . Her full paper is also a must read (preview: private sector blog hosting services are doing a lot of the heavy lifting for China’s online sensors).

You should also check out the recently released Berkman paper by Hal Roberts, Ethan Zuckerman and John Palfrey, where they share the results of the testing of various circumvention tools. The technology behind them all is basically the same (like a bank shot in basketball, as the Times piece says), and their testing found that not all tools work as well as one might assume. Of course, users need to make their own decision about what to use and their relative merits, so this paper is an important read. They found that Tor and Psiphon were two of the best at the time of testing. Finally, at a recent meeting of bloggers and activist from the Middle East, I was struck by how many people in countries with restrictions on free speech don’t use these advanced tools–and are often not even aware of them. Hopefully, the press coverage will help spread the word a bit further.

Posted in China, Iran, Tech Tools. Comments Off on Circumvention in Iran and China

Roxana Saberi on Hunger Strike

Reporters without Borders reports that Iranian-American journalist, Roxana Saberi — sentenced last Saturday to 8 years in prison after a sham 1 day closed trial in Tehran — is protesting her detention with a hunger strike. (For more background on Saberi, and her dubious arrest by Iranian authorities, read this profile by her former employer, the BBC.)

Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not typically the most civil liberties friendly, had directly appealed to the Iran’s independent judiciary to process the case of Saberi with openness and transparency. Perhaps he is feeling the pressure of a potential American rapprochement. The visibility of the Saberi case could easily flare up into a full grown diplomatic feud. So far, Secretary Clinton’s language has been measured, though concerned.

Might the internet play a constructive role here in changing the diplomatic end game by raising the heat on Iranian authorities? Imagine, it was years before Solzhenitsin could get The Gulag Archipelago published in the West, much less in the Soviet Union. Now, despite all the Iranians’ best efforts at a low key and hack job political trial, anyone with Google can learn the inner workings of Saberi’s detention and moreover Iran’s infamous Evin political prison where she’s being held.

While — as AbuAardvark and NetEffect’s Evgeny Morozov have been right to point out — the internet is not radically democraticizing the world, it does raise the embarassment and diplomatic costs of political prisoners. Hard to complain you’ve been shut out of the community of nations when your injustice is plainly on display. And the web is what solves this informational assymetry, even if it can’t shake kings and autocrats.

Saberi’s partner, Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, has written an open letter appealing to Iranian authorities. The letter can be read in full here and is circulating on numerous media outlets and websites (BBC, Campaign for Human Rights in Iran to name a few).

Tweet it, RT it, blog, and howl. Roxana should be free.

Ahmadinejad Defends Saberi and the Blogfather

In an unexpected move, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly called on the Iranian judiciary to respect the legal rights of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi and Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan. Saberi was recently sentenced to eight years in prison by Iran’s secretive Revolutionary Court. Derakshan, known in Iran as the “Blogfather” is currently being held on charges of spying for Israel.

As reported by Reuters, the letter read:

“Based on the president’s insistence, please make sure that all the legal stages about the mentioned people be based on justice,” it said … and you personally make sure that the accused people enjoy all freedoms and legal rights to defend themselves and their rights are not violated.”

The politics of the gesture are not entirely clear, and Ahmadinejad may not ultimately be successful in cajoling the independent Iranian judiciary, but this is still welcome news and a sliver of hope that the detention of journalists on trumped up national security charges cannot be business as usual.

Revolutionary Guards’ soft power: from “cyber repression” to “humanitarian action”

By Hamid Tehrani, Global Voices Iran Editor and I&D Guest Blogger

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has been celebrating its soft power over the past two months by dismantling several sites it accused of being anti-religion, pornographic, and conducting anti-national security activities. (1)

It seems the Revolutionary Guards Corp was so pleased by its conquest of the virtual world that it launched a Web site (2) where it names the sites this military ideologically motivated organization has dismantled and hacked. The Web site also reveals photos of arrested people who were allegedly involved with these sites.

The Revolutionary Guards Corp accused some Western countries of supporting these anti-religion sites and cyber dissidents who, they claim, are planning a soft overthrow of the regime. The Corp has also warned that the Internet is not out of its reach anymore.

Several Iranian bloggers and Western media members pointed out that this virtual, well-organized attack is a sign that a new era has dawned where the Iranian cyber world is less secure, and repression is more frequent and real.

Some Iranian bloggers also write that this well-publicized action, which was covered several times on national TV, is just the tip of the iceberg, and that it aims to make people scared and tarnish the image of the blogosphere among Iranians. Some bloggers have also demanded that those arrested for running the sites should have access to legal defense as their rights have been violated by mistreatment and torture.

It seems all these thoughts, doubts, and speculations have some roots in reality and that imprisonment for Iranian bloggers, filtering of Web sites, and censorship are hard facts in the country.

But the Western media have chosen to ignore one very important fact, one not discussed much in the Iranian blogosphere–that the action by the Revolutionary Guards involved not only hacking and jailing.

Some of the pornographic sites shut down were not ordinary, normal ones. They exposed naked Iranian women and girls who were filmed without their knowledge, and even some of the victims in these films were sexually violated.

Hacking and dismantling these sites has nothing to do with either censorship or freedom of speech. The action of the Revolutionary Guards, by ending the virtual existence of these sites, can be considered as a humanitarian action because it upholds the honor, private life, reputation, and existence of its people. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for an Iranian citizen in Iran to hire an international lawyer to complain against a foreign-based hosting company.

The Revolutionary Guards frequently use soft-overthrow conspiracies and threats to justify their actions. Soft overthrow can be considered a sad reaction to the George Bush regime’s changed mantra, and the former American Government’s $75-million investment in soft power to achieve this goal.(3)

Bush’s soft power rhetoric not only failed to empower Iranian cyber activists or NGOs but it became an excuse for the Iranian regime to step up pressure on Iran’s civil society.

Now that Bush is gone, the Iranian regime is being courted by the Obama administration’s offer to help in Afghanistan. The Revolutionary Guards Corps flourished with its soft power, and instead of haggling over half measures such as filtering, it wiped off sites and blogs. Cyber dissidents are worried about what their next move will be, and do not know to whom they can pray. But at least they have Bush to curse.

Posted in blogging, Ideas, Iran. Comments Off on Revolutionary Guards’ soft power: from “cyber repression” to “humanitarian action”

Morozov: The Internet No Democratic Cure

I’ve had some time to pour over Evgeny Morozov’s thoughtful and sobering piece on cyber-utopianism. He’s dead on in diagnosing Western academics and activists with quixotic belief in the Internet’s power to democratize. The web is no panacea for totalitarianism, Morozov warns, and to fervently hope otherwise is hopeful blindness.

In at least two respects, I agree with Morozov. First, simply increasing access to the internet has not taken down the world’s notorious human rights offenders. “Logistics,” as Morozov points out, “are not the only determinant of civic engagement.” The web may have amplified the efforts of democracy activists (in the Ukraine, Burma or China), but this fact has not necessarily swelled the ranks of freedom fighters.

Connected to this is a corollary point, and one which I previously discussed in connection to a paper Morozov wrote for the Open Society Institute. The Web contains as much distraction as dissidence; it’s a hall of mirrors, often a projection of active fantasy, not political activism. In the BR piece, Morozov nails this:

Once they get online unsupervised, do we expect Chinese Internet users, many of them young, to rush to download the latest report from Amnesty International or read up on Falun Gong on Wikipedia? Or will they opt for The Sopranos or the newest James Bond flick? Why assume that they will suddenly demand more political rights, rather than the Friends or Sex in the City lifestyles they observe on the Internet?

Returning to my first point, Chinese and Burmese cyber-dissidence has simply been met with heavier repression and authoritarian backlash. In direct proportion to the expansion of internet access, Chinese users have seen the creation of a behemoth Great Firewall, monitoring all traffic, even Skype conversations, for subversive keywords. Those bloggers and netizens caught red-handed are shut down or arrested — in chilling 1984-esque slang, they are “harmonized.”

In Burma, by contrast, the Saffron Revolution of Buddhist monks was defeated by a complete take down of the internet and brutal military repression, despite well publicized and shocking photographs from citizen journalists and bloggers. Indeed, one of the motivating questions in our study of the Saffron Revolution was why democratic reform did not materialize in Burma despite the pro-democratic catalyst of internet activists.

However warranted Morozov’s cyber-pessimism may be, there is some room for counter-argument. Cyber-utopians may falsely subscribe to technological determinism, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility that the web’s influence on democratic reform is subtle and slow, almost Burkean in quality.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in blogging, China, Citizen Journalism, Developing world, Free Speech, I&D Project, Ideas, Iran, Middle East. Comments Off on Morozov: The Internet No Democratic Cure

Bluehost To Sack Iranian Blogs

Bluehost, which hosts several WordPress blogs in Iran, is set to start removing Iranian users due to a clause  which allows them to deny service to countries under American government sanctions. The sad irony is that this action only hurts political speech, civil society and democratic participation in Iran, the very values that thinking Americans would like to flourish there.

In deeply conservative Iran, whose outspoken anti-Americanism and atomic ambitions have prompted punitive sanctions from the West, the blogosphere has become one of the few avenues of robust political speech. As Persian blogger Arash Kamangir eloquently puts it:

My father once took me to the streets in front of the University of Tehran, now called Revolution Street, and showed me the pavement. He said, “There was a time when, at every inch of this pavement, a person was passionately advocating for a political group.” The Persian blogosphere is the electronic version of those packed streets which were silenced soon after the takeover of power by the current administration.

There are, of course, enormous complications to any Iranian-American rapproachment, Obama’s recent holiday well-wishing aside. See The Atlantic’s sobering Netanyahu interview for what I mean by this. At the same time, the Manichean image of Iran as an evil theocracy of mad mullahs must be checked against the aspirations of average Iranians, who simply desire the autonomy to speak, discuss and protest. Bluehost’s disappointing denial of service does nothing to foster this web-based civil society and, in fact, may only prop up hardliners, anxious to shackle hosting services and executve bloggers.

Missionary/Blogger Detained in Iran

The Committee to Protect Bloggers reports that an Iranian blogger and convert to Christianity has been detained by a police dragnet for writing about the Bible. Conversion from Islam to another religion has long been a taboo in Muslim countries, and in some (like Iran or Afghanistan) it still carries penalties like death or jail time for “apostasy.” For more background, read the Council on Foreign Relations’s primer on theocratic sharia law and conversion.

What is unique to this case is the blogging aspect. Of course, as global access to the Internet increases,  I think an inevitable conflict between conservative sharia courts and free expression will explode and multiply. The recent condemnation of an Afghan journalism student for even downloading articles which question Islam represents an extreme example of the phenomenon.

In more internet savvy Iran, there are over 60,000 Farsi language blogs. Potentially, that includes thousands of aberrant opinions, converts to other faiths, missionaries, satirists and dissidents — many of whom are currently self-censor out of fear.

The Iranian state’s battle against free religious speech may already be underway. As Al-Jazeera recently suggested, a proposed Iranian law making seditious blogging a capital offense would include, from the perspective of Sharia, conversion in its definition of “fasad.” Fasad is a category from Islamic legal interpretation which broadly encompasses what we might call sedition or “mischief against the State.”

Posted in blogging, Current Events, Free Speech, I&D Project, Iran. Comments Off on Missionary/Blogger Detained in Iran

How To Blog Anonymously

For readers and netizens living under an iron curtain of internet and political repression (fighting river crabs), anonymous blogging is an important free speech enabler. Like 18th century phampleteers (or even the writers of the Federalist papers), anonymous bloggers are empowered by their aliases to challenge taboos, censors and government power.

This updated guide (edited by Global Voices/Berkman guru Ethan Zuckerman) lays out the best practices of protecting your identity without silencing your voice, including the Tor anonymizer with WordPress and email tricks. The internet is the last bulwark against totalitarian control because of its fluid and democratic character. That is why anonymous blogging is so important. Difficult to trace or gag, it is the kind of speech most likely to impact an increasingly interconnected and web-dependent world.

Of course, be extremely careful. Use these tools at your discretion. Reporters Without Borders has a comprehensive list of jailed cyber-dissidents. This past week, an Iranian blogger died in prison custody, while the Iranian parliament considered passing a chilling law, turning seditious and anti-clerical blogging into a capital offense. And this in a country with millions of internet users and thousands of blogs…

What’s Filtered in Iran?

Hamid Tehrani at Global Voices has a great primer on what is currently filtered in Iran that is well worth the read. He reports that popular sites like Balatarin and BBC Persian service are top priorities for filtering, and that filtering changes over time, with heavily trafficked sites like YouTube and MySpace getting blocked momentarily but now viewable in Iran–perhaps due to popular demand for those sites within Iran.

I was most surprised, though, to see that the Huffington Post is blocked. Hamid notes that the Huff Post in the past has been quite opposed to Bush and others that were arguing for war with Iran, so I can’t quite figure why that one would be blocked.

And as Kamangir writes (in Persian), use of Herdict by those in Iran could be a good way to use the knowledge of the crowd to understand what is filtered there. I see that Iran is now fourth in the rankings of countries that are reporting through Herdict, which is fantastic, but I’d love to see it at the top of the list!

Posted in Free Speech, Iran, Middle East. Comments Off on What’s Filtered in Iran?

Obama’s YouTube Diplomacy

For those that haven’t seen it yet, below is Obama’s YouTube Nowruz (New Year) message to the people and leaders of Iran. In my opinion, he seems to have gotten the tone just about right. And I found that the use of online video to speak directly to the Iranian people, but also its leaders, a great example of Internet diplomacy. In our research into both the Persian and Arabic language blogospheres, we have found that online resources such as YouTube and Wikipedia are by far the most popular online media sources. Although YouTube has been blocked on and off in Iran, I understand it is currently not blocked. We need more people there to use Herdict and tell us if this is true or not. Obama’s use of YouTube also ensures that he will get a far larger audience than the usual White House press release garners. My only concern, though, is that the media and blogosphere are so focused on Obama’s video that nobody is talking about the death of Iranian blogger Omid Reza Misayafi, which is far too important, and upsetting, of a story to be overlooked.