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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; A11

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.

For him and other bloggers, the U.S.-imposed restrictions on downloading software have had a great psychological effect. "Because of these U.S. sanctions, we feel that not only the Iranian government but the world is against us," Mehdi said. "We felt safe on the internet but we were also pressured and attacked there, even by those who said they supported us. That had a great negative psychological effect on Iranian webloggers," he said.

Mehdi went online Tuesday to see whether Google products and other restricted software were now available in Iran, but he still received messages that the software could not be downloaded. "The question is now, will it really happen?" he said.

Banafsheh said she hopes that U.S. companies will make the software available. "I'm certain they will no longer ignore us, after everything that happened in Iran," she said, referring to recent anti-government demonstrations and arrests of opposition figures.

For its part, Google is "uncertain at the moment" as to when the services banned in Iran -- Chrome, Google Earth and Google Talk -- will be available. "We'll need time to evaluate which products are now eligible for export to Iran and how to implement their release," said a company official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. The official said Gmail is "currently available" in Iran.

Company spokesman Scott Rubin said Google is "very happy" with Treasury's move. "We have long advocated for the ability to provide citizens of those countries tools to help them communicate with each other and the world," he said in an e-mail.

Staff writer Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.

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