The Tweet Heard Around the World: Thwarting Censorship in Iran, One Proxy-Server at a Time

The Iranian government, never a proponent of free expression, has ramped up its practice of filtering its citizens’ access to social networking websites following Friday’s election and the ensuing protests.  For instance, the Iranian government has blocked access to Twitter from servers located in Iran.

The Iranian government’s efforts, however, have been thwarted by a complicated network of non-Iranian proxy servers and software programs.

The Iranian government has been actively blocking access to these proxy-servers as they learn of them—but they are still behind the curve as tech savvy lovers of free expression continue to inform Iranians of unblocked proxies. American technology consultant Austin Heap even published on his blog instructions on how to set up proxy servers for Iranians.

Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society Faculty Co-Director Jonathan Zittrain described the situation to the New York Times as  “a game of whack-a-mole in blocking Internet address after Internet address carrying the subversive material.”

Relying on access to proxies, Iranian citizens continue to use social networking sites, most notably Twitter, to  inform the world of their plight in exquisite detail.  Iran’s restriction on traditional reporting has left those of us outside of Iran with nothing but Tweets to inform us of the political unrest.

For this reason, the United States State Department issued an advisory message to American run social networking websites, urging them to maintain open access to Iranians. Twitter delayed its  network upgrade shut-down, running it at 1:30 a.m. Iranian time.

Twitter’s open network structure has made it an especially successful tool for Iranians. As Berkman Center fellow Hal Roberts explained,

a defining attribute of Twitter is that it is an open system in that it allows a wide diversity of external tools and sites to read from and write to its service through its programming interface…[B]locking Twitter-as-a-network-system [is] much harder than simply blocking Twitter the site, since there are dozens of tools and sites that directly read and write the Twitter data stream.

The actions of the past few days illustrate the role that privately-run intermediaries of Internet expression play in democracy.

And yet we have reason to worry that American run intermediaries, such as Twitter, as well as Internet service providers, will block content pertaining to countries such as Iran.  This is due to longstanding U.S. trade restrictions.  We have covered this issue before, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation continues to monitor the situation.

Although the law restricting the exportation of goods and services to enemy states has carved out exceptions for transmitting “information” and “information materials,” U.S. intermediaries often err on the side of caution.   Lawyers advising U.S. companies on how to comply with trade law, routinely advise clients not to provide even permitted communication services to restricted nations.  Companies comply because they want to avoid costly lawsuits, as well as the stigma of appearing to do business with enemy nations.  In other words, expression, which on paper should be permitted, is blocked from entering cyberspace.

The micro-blogged reporting of the Iranian uprising, however, serves as a case-study in how the benefits of transmitting information and communications with enemies of the U.S. outweigh potential harms.  As long as the channels of free expression remain open, there is hope for this world.

About Blog of the National Coalition Against Censorship

Blogging Censorship is where National Coalition Against Censorship staff weigh in on the censorship issues on their minds.
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2 Responses to The Tweet Heard Around the World: Thwarting Censorship in Iran, One Proxy-Server at a Time

  1. The free online-petition hosting web web site, PetitionOnline.com, has been mostly inaccessible since last Friday (6/12) when a massive and continuing DDoS attack put the site offline.

    If the overwhelming inference of Iranian government involvement at PetitionOnline is correct, this seems to be a dramatic intrusion – an assault against freedom and sovereignty right here in the US.

    The PetitionOnline site is significant, serving a couple of million monthly visitors (Alexa rank typically in top 5000, has peaked recently around 1000) with 30K-50K signatures collected daily on tens of thousands of active petitions. Some 78 million petition signatures have been collected in total at PetitionOnline. Alexa lists more than 21,000 sites linking in to PetitionOnline.

    These petitions address matters of local, national, and international significance, and have generated results ranging from public apologies by global corporations to financially important national legislation.

    When NTT/Verio got PetitionOnline accessible for about ten hours Tuesday afternoon, the number two petition listed was against Ali Khamenei. When they got it accessible again early Thursday morning, all the top three petitions listed were about Iran.

    As the NTT/Verio Network Operations Center reported to us, “during a 15 minute interval the site endured over 2.5 million hits from individual IP addresses. This is a massive and sophisticated attack.”

    It seems like a pretty big deal if a foreign government is reaching out to shut off a significant communications and activism nexus within the U.S. – blocking off, along with their own subjects, the free association and political organizing of hundreds of thousands and more Americans.

  2. Dean Omori says:

    CENSORSHIP BURNS THE BOOKS NOBODY READ

    Inspired by the events in Iran

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