When Iranian protesters used internet services like Twitter to gain global attention they also reminded the world that oppressive regimes continue to buy or build technologies to enforce censorship.
Clothilde Le Coz, director of internet research for Reporters Without Borders, says Iran is second only to China in the extent and sophistication of its efforts to stifle dissent online.
“The Iranian government said last year that it was blocking 5 million websites,” Le Coz said in a telephone interview. “They brag about what they can do, perhaps to intimidate their opponents.”
The complicity of Western companies in Iranian censorship was brought into focus when the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran's ability to monitor online protests “was provided at least in part” by Nokia Siemens Networks, a jointly owned subsidiary of the two European tech firms.
Hoping to limit the damage to its reputation, the European telecommunications firm issued a statement explaining that it had only provided Iran the ability to tap wireless phone calls — a function called “lawful intercept” that it is also legally required to sell as a crime-fighting tool in Europe and the United States.
“Nokia Siemens Networks has not provided any deep packet inspection, web censorship or internet filtering capability to Iran,” the company said.
Iran, already subject to a U.S.-imposed trade embargo, apparently considers internet censorship so critical that it has developed its own web monitoring tools.
“Iran now employs domestically produced technology for identifying and blocking objectionable websites, reducing its reliance on Western filtering technologies,” according to a recent report from the Open Net Initiative, an academic consortium that tracks internet censorship.
The report added: “With the emergence of this domestic technical capacity, Iran joins China as the only countries that aggressively filter the internet using their own technology.”
The fact that so much material leaked out over the internet despite Iran's efforts to squelch the flow shows the difficulties of censoring a medium that evolves so quickly, said Nart Villeneuve, a research fellow at the University of Toronto's Munk Center for International Studies, which is part of the Open Net Initiative.
For instance, the relatively new messaging service, Twitter.com, delivered more than 2 million brief reports from inside Iran during an 18-day period, according to one post-election analysis. Villeneuve said Iranian authorities tried to stop the message flow by blocking access to Twitter.com, but many Iranians knew how to evade such measures by relaying their “tweets” through unblocked proxy servers.
Villeneuve said some nations, notably Burma and Nepal, have simply cut themselves off from the internet during periods of civil unrest to deny protesters a world audience, but international actors like Iran and China seem reluctant to go to such extremes, preferring selective censorship instead.
This suggests that the contuining battle between free speech and censorship will involve Western companies whenever they do business with repressive regimes. A total embargo on countries that don't adhere to Western norms is unlikely and perhaps unwise. As Nokia Siemens Networks spokesman Ben Roome noted in an email to GlobalPost, the number of Iranian cellphone subscribers went from 12 million to 53 million in a two-year period. “Would people in Iran be better off without access to telecommunications?” he asks rhetorically.
Activist groups hope to force Western tech companies to avoid supporting censorship. Reporters Without Borders used the Iranian crisis to focus renewed attention on the Global Online Freedom Act, a proposal that asks the U.S. Congress to impose fines on American companies that make or modify technologies that aid internet censorship.
Meanwhile, Iran's efforts to develop its own filtering technologies suggest that whatever Western nations and companies do, repressive governments want to enjoy the benefits of technology while minimizing challenges to their authority — even when their tactics seem downright foolish.
For instance, the Open Net Inititative report notes that in 2006, the Iranian government told its internet service providers not to offer home access faster than 128 kilobytes. Whether this was to discourage the downloading of porn or the uploading of protest images, according to the report, the policy makes Iran “the only country in the world to have instituted an explicit cap on internet access speeds for households.”
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