Iranian officials say they must control which sites Iranians are able to visit, to prevent spying and protect the public from “immoral” material. The United States, they charge, is waging a “soft war” against Iran by reaching out to Iranians online and inciting them to overthrow their leaders.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday played into such accusations, saying U.S. officials had asked Twitter, the social networking site, to postpone online maintenance in 2009 so that it would be available for Iranian anti-government protesters organizing demonstrations against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed election victory.
Iran’s state radio responded Thursday, citing Clinton’s comments as proof that Washington is using U.S. Internet companies to influence events inside Iran. Tensions between the two countries are high following allegations that an Iranian American citizen had plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington at the behest of the Quds Force, an elite branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran has denied the accusations, but the United States has called for tougher sanctions against Tehran.
In interviews this week with the Farsi-language channels of the Voice of America and the BBC, Clinton announced a U.S. plan to open a “virtual embassy” for Iran that would provide online information about visas and student programs.
But the initiative is likely to be thwarted by Iranian authorities, who are increasingly using filtering software to block access to sites such as CNN or to Web pages containing sensitive key words and phrases, such as “sex” and “velvet revolution.” At times, the Google search engine is blocked. Attempts to open such sites from Iran take the user to a page operated by the Communication and Information Technology Ministry that reads, “Dear user, according to the law you are not allowed to visit to this bad Web site.”
The page is now the seventh-most-visited in the country, according to Iranian online statistics monitors.
The only social media sites Iranians are allowed to access, such as Cloob.com, are locally hosted and limited in scope compared with Facebook.
A considerable number of Iran’s roughly 35 million Internet users manage to enter the forbidden sites through widely available but illegal “virtual private networks” — software that allows users to surf the Web through portals in other countries. But those users are also subject to scrutiny by Iran’s cyber police, who use alternative identities to roam social media networks.
In addition, bloggers and other online activists here have increasingly faced arrest in the past year, with some sentenced to long prison terms.