Iranians Get Brief Taste of Free Access to Social Media

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: Internet user in Iran had a big surprise yesterday. Many of them discovered they were able to access Facebook and Twitter directly. Normally those sites are blocked by the Iranian government and users have to go through a proxy server outside Iran to access them. When the fire wall went down hundreds of Iranian Facebook and Twitter users posted celebratory messages, but the joy didn't last long. A few hours later the sites were blocked again. [inaudible @ 00:25] is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and we talk to her regularly about technology and society. First [inaudible @ 00:35] tell us what happened yesterday. Why was it that Facebook and Twitter were directly accessible? Was it a symbol of new openness, or just a goof up?

Zeynep Tufekci: It turns out to have been a glitch. When â€" it was; when people started posting freely without using a VPN which is the service that lets you get around Iran's filtered net. We were really surprised and there was a discussion on whether it was a symbol of opening with, you know, the Iranian president now being on Twitter and tweeting openly maybe this was a symbol that they were going to let their citizens access the internet freely. But quickly, it turned out, that that wasn't the case. That it was actually a glitch in their â€" what people in Iran are calling “ the filternet”, which is this sort of nationalized internet which doesn't really let the users freely go to a lot of websites that are outside of Iran. Another possibility people discussed was what had happened in Syria, in which the Syrian regime actually removed blocks that it had on Facebook and other sites early into the rebellion with pretty clearly the intention was to surveil and sort of follow and spy on their citizens.

Schachter: The idea would be that the first people to jump on are kind of the online leaders and you want to catch them.

Tufekci: Well, that might have been the idea but in Iran right now we have about a million people that are at least, you know, using one VPN of service that lets you get around Iran's blockage and we seem to have about 10 to 20 million Iranians who are on Facebook anyway. So it's pretty clear these sites that even though they're blocked they're very very widely used on â€" by Iranians. So what the government might want to do might be to spy on their citizens more effectively because right now what they're doing is using these, you know, VPNs. These private networks that encrypt the communications so that the government cannot see what the users are doing. So if you didn't need to use the VPN anymore you might use sort of the regular internet which would â€" which is more vulnerable to spying and being, you know, observed.

Schachter: Yeah. There was some stories in the last week or so about the new president Rouhani being a big Twitter. I just followed him last week. And yet as you say normal Iranians are denied direct access. I mean maybe does this suggest a change? Rouhani and even from what I understand the supreme leader being on Twitter?

Tufekci: Well it doesn't seem to suggest a change for normal people. It seems like they are trying to use these new tools to kind of make certain statements and reach out to Western audiences, but it really doesn't look like the parts of the Iranian government in control of the internet access are about to let up any time soon. In fact what we saw was that as soon as the Twitter and Facebook started becoming accessible, they started being shut down on some selected ISPs and not others through alternative means. So what probably happened was that the nationwide control had a glitch. So a lot of local ISPs sort of jumped up with their make shift blocking software and some of them did and did not. So we saw a little patch work for a while.

Schacter: Now I was recently in China, which is another country that blocks Facebook and Twitter, and yet just about everyone I came across were using these things – were going on Twitter and Facebook. Is there really a point in countries blocking these things anymore when, as you say, you can get around those blocks?

Tufekci: Well there is a point. What you said is true. In Iran we have 10 to 20 million users of Facebook and Twitter, and in China there's a segment of the population that really is online on the internet using VPNs. The people you interacted with were probably the kind of people who are more able to reach a [inaudible @ 04:36] or are more privileged, where as it will keep a lot of regular people who are kind of afraid of using these VPNs, these private networks, off the internet. That's the case in China. The kind of people you are more likely to meet are probably all online you know, globally but average use of these services is very low. The second thing that's pretty important for governments to consider, and this is sort of a dilemma to for them, is that if they push their people into these sort of private networks which are encrypted, then they can't spy on them. So the governments have a balancing act, too. They have to try to figure out how much to restrict because the more they restrict the more interested people get in [inaudible @ 05:19], which, by the way, has a huge domestic story angle. Last week it was revealed that our national security agency was working to weaken encryption standards which are used globally so that it can spy on whatever it wants to spy on easier. So inadvertently, we might have been making it easier for the Iranian government to spy on its own people too. If we are to weaken encryption standards here, that means they're being weakened everywhere. And that's, you know, if we want to help Iranians get around their government spying, that's just the opposite of what we should be doing.

Schacter: Zeynep Tufecki is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. She joins us often to talk about technology around the world. Zana, thank you.

Tufekci: Thank you.

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