Iran blocking foreign, domestic Web sites to curb anti-government activists

By Thomas Erdbrink and Kay Armin Serjoie
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

TEHRAN -- The bearded blogger stood before an effigy of an Islamic warrior towering over the letters "WWW."

"You are the young officers in this war. The United States and their domestic allies have started this fight and you have countered them," he told the recent gathering of pro-government bloggers, part of the cyber-war being fought by Iranian authorities engaged in an unprecedented effort to block anti-government forces from using the World Wide Web and social networks to communicate and organize.

Ever since the disputed victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June elections led to wide-scale protests, Iran's leaders have been cracking down on the tech-savvy opposition movement with the Revolutionary Guard and police blocking millions of foreign and domestic Web sites, including some Google services, CNN and the BBC.

Iran's leaders say these measures are necessary to counter efforts by the United States and other Western countries. "They are trying to defeat the Islamic republic through the Internet," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, said in January.

But until this week, government authorities had been aided by U.S. trade policy that prevented American companies from exporting social media technology to Iran as part of a broad effort to prevent the spread of technology to the Islamic republic. Now, the Treasury Department, at the request of the State Department, has decided to allow companies such as Google and Microsoft to export free mass-market software to Iran, as well as Sudan and Cuba.

"Personal Internet-based communications like e-mail, instant messaging and social networking are powerful tools," said Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin. "This software will foster and support the free flow of information -- a basic human right -- for all Iranians."

The U.S. action comes at a time when Iranian authorities have created cyber-intelligence units that are developing new methods to seek out and snare the opposition, including fake Facebook accounts. Authorities also are contemplating the creation of a national Internet that would approve which sites could be available in the Islamic republic. The government has also enacted a law that threatens bloggers with jail time if they "defame sanctities" -- a broad accusation in Iran -- in their postings.

The new efforts mean that every time opposition bloggers in Iran fire up a laptop, they risk a visit by the cyber-police.

"They have filtered my blog. After I changed the address, they filtered it again," an opposition activist named Banafsheh said via e-mail. Like other opposition activists interviewed, she declined to allow her family name and her blog name to be used because of fear of prosecution. "The next step will be an attack on my site by their hacking squads or, in the worst case, my arrest. Many web administrators have been taken in," she said.

She has tried to download Google's Chrome browser, which also partly works offline. That is a useful feature in Iran, activists say, because it allows them to check information even when the government shuts off the Internet during protests. When she did, a Google page popped up reading: "Error 404, you live in a forbidden country."

It has been the same for other software, including Google Earth, which Iranian activists in exile have used to measure the size and location of demonstrations, and Google Talk, an instant-messaging program deemed secure by protesters in Iran who have obtained it by using anti-filtering software that relays them to a third country.

Another blogger, Mehdi, who is active on Twitter and Facebook, said this week's change in U.S. policy was too little too late. "During the aftermath of the elections it might have had an effect. But now it's just a symbolic act," he said.

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