#IMWeekly: October 28, 2013

German officials alleged that the US had monitored Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone for more than a decade. The allegations were based on leaked documents obtained by the German news magazine Der Spiegel. While the US administration has denied that President Barack Obama was aware of or approved any intelligence operations involving Merkel, the controversy has increased tension between the US and its European allies and has provoked calls within Germany to better shield domestic Internet traffic from foreign intelligence services.

Google announced the creation of Uproxy, a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox that can allow users all over the world to bypass restrictive firewalls by using peer-to-peer connections. The new technology has the potential to provide uncensored Internet access for activists all over the world.

The administration of recently elected President Hassan Rouhani announced that it is closely reviewing and revising government censorship policies. The review process is beginning with censored books, but statements by Iranian officials suggest that they may also revisit government policies that restrict access to various websites and social media—a goal that is in line with statements made by President Rouhani prior to his election.

A group of nations led by Germany and Brazil joined together to push for a UN General Resolution to promote a right of privacy on the Internet. The meeting of diplomats in New York represented the first significant international effort to limit NSA surveillance powers exposed in recent revelations about American spying. Diplomats are reportedly considering a draft resolution that expands on the privacy rights contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

#IMWeekly: October 7, 2013

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani chatted about Internet censorship with Twitter founder Jack Dorsey last week. The medium for their conversation? Twitter itself, which is blocked in Iran. Dorsey launched the conversation by asking Rouhani if Iranian citizens were able to read his tweets. Rouhani responded by claiming that he intends to “ensure my ppl’ll comfortably b able 2 access all info globally as is their #right,” potentially signaling a move toward greater Internet freedom in the country.

According to documents collected by Russian journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, Russia plans to monitor both the phone and Internet communications of Olympic competitors and spectators in February.

Dissident blogger Le Quoc Quan was sentenced to 30 months in prison and a $59,000 fine last Wednesday. Quan was arrested last December after criticizing the role of the Communist Party in Vietnam’s leadership; he was charged with tax evasion.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

Iran Accidentally Allows Access to Facebook, Twitter for 24 Hours

On Monday, Internet users in Iran noticed that they could access Facebook and Twitter—the first time the social media sites have been viewable in the country since 2009. Despite the block, Iranians can normally access the sites using a VPN, but Twitter and Facebook users reported that the sites were suddenly freely accessible.

On Tuesday, this access disappeared.

Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, who leads Iran’s filtering and monitoring committee, blamed the sites’ temporary accessibility on “technical problems”—in other words, it was an accident. Some are claiming that the unblocking was a test to see how citizens would respond, perhaps as the beginning of a greater easing of Internet restrictions in Iran, but Khoramabadi has declared that his office is conducting an investigation to determine who is responsible for the glitch, suggesting that it wasn’t entirely government-sanctioned.

For now, Iranians are back to using VPNs—many of which have been targeted by censorship officials—to post tweets and status updates.

#imweekly: June 17, 2013

United States
The National Security Agency has confirmed that it has been operating a global electronic surveillance program, collecting information from Google, Facebook, and other tech companies under a program called PRISM, after Booz Allen employee and NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked inside documents. The news has triggered a widespread outcry from human rights advocates and organizations.

Saudi Arabia
In March, Saudi Arabian officials declared that the country would block access to three popular voice and messaging services—Viber, Skype, and WhatsApp—if the companies did not give the government access to local monitoring services. The government has followed through on its threat, blocking Viber on June 6. On June 11, the block was rescinded, though whether Viber has complied with government demands for monitoring access is unclear.

Iranian Gmail users were reporting evidence of phishing attacks, just days before last week’s presidential elections. The attacks, which appear to be originating from within the country, have been occurring for three weeks; in a blog post, Google Vice President of Security Engineering Eric Grosse said the attacks were likely politically motivated. Google security staff said the phishing attacks appeared to be conducted by the same group that conducted attacks in Iran in 2011 using a fraudulent Google certificate.

US lifts sanctions on technology exports to Iran

The US Department of the Treasury announced last week that it is lifting sanctions against Iran that have prevented the export and provision of software, hardware, and communications services to the country. The Treasury has issued a General License (PDF) that permits US companies and citizens to provide:

  • “fee-based services* incident to the exchange of personal communications over the Internet, such as instant messaging, chat and email, social networking, sharing of photos and movies, web browsing, and blogging”;
  • “consumer-grade Intemet connectivity services and the provision, sale, or leasing of capacity on telecommunications transmission facilities (such as satellite or terrestrial network connectivity) incident to personal communications”;
  • related software and hardware; and
  • Internet connectivity services and related satellite/network capacity.

The move, which came just two weeks before Iran’s presidential election, has been described as part of the Obama administration’s attempt to “thwart censorship” in Iran, this time by helping provide access to technology that may help Iranians evade online information controls and avoid hacking. In the lead-up to the election, both activists and Internet users have experienced government interference. According to the Treasury press release, the new General License “aims to empower the Iranian people as their government intensifies its efforts to stifle their access to information.”

Iranian activist groups have been receptive, saying that the sanctions were ultimately more damaging to individual Internet users than to the Iranian government. Writing for Slate, Danielle Kehl and Tim Maurer point out that under the previous ban, many technologies companies opted not to operate at all in Iran, fearing that they might unintentionally run afoul of the law. Samsung, Nokia, and Apple have all refused to provide access to some or all of their products in Iran or even, in Apple’s case, to an Iranian citizen living in the United States. Iranian human rights activist Ali Akbar Musavi Khoeni called for “clear guidelines and guarantees” for companies operating under the new regulations in order to ensure that the lifting of the sanctions has the best possible effect for Iranian citizens.

*Note: free, publicly available services and software are regulated under 31 C.F.R. § 560.540, which authorizes the provision of online personal communications services (instant messaging, blogging, social networking, etc.) to people in Iran.