Google’s much-dreaded announcement on the coming demise of Google Reader has alarmed users in Iran — and drawn attention to the scale and complexity of online censorship there.
Many RSS readers, including Google’s, serve as anti-censorship tools for people living under oppressive regimes. That’s because it’s actually Google’s servers, located in the U.S. or another country with uncensored internet, that accesses each feed. So a web user in Iran just needs access to google.com/reader in order to read websites that would otherwise be blocked.
Unfortunately for Iranian Internet users, government censors had it out for Google Reader long before Google itself did. The government blocked all of Google’s sites — including Reader, Gmail and Youtube — for about a week in late September, only restoring them after widespread outrage.
But in February, Iranian Internet users began reporting problems with secure Web sites again, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And earlier this week, authorities banned the majority of the country’s “virtual private networks” — effectively blocking Google once again, Reuters reports.
How Iran censors so much of the Web, and who actually does the dirty work, is not entirely clear. According to Reporters Without Borders and the University of Pennsylvania’s Iran Media Program, the Iranian Internet is watched by a number of overlapping regulatory bodies, some of which ultimately report to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The state’s largest Internet service provider, Data Communication Company of Iran, is directly overseen by the Revolutionary Guard, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). All Internet Service Providers (ISPs), whether they’re publicly or privately owned, must buy bandwidth from the Data Communications Company of Iran — which requires that the ISPs filter for blacklists, keywords, URLs and IP addresses, as well as any content that “disrupts national unity,” “stirs pessimism” or undermines religious leaders.
Both the Iranian police and the Revolutionary Guard monitor the Internet for dissent, as well. RSF reports that 46 journalists and “netizens” are currently in jail.
At the very top of the food chain, the Supreme Council on Cyberspace sets the country’s cyber policies, while the Committee Charged with Determining Offensive Content sets the list of sites to block.
These regulators appear to have grown larger and more powerful over time. While the Iran Media Program estimates that a third of Iran’s “netizens” use tools like virtual private networks (VPNs) or "onion routing" (TOR) to evade filters, Iran took considerable steps against that when they banned VPNs this week. There's also evidence that authorities have begun using "deep packet inspection," a real-time monitoring technology bought from China, on some of its networks.
And Iran has long promised to replace the Internet with its internal, $1 billion “halal” intranet system, which would block access to all Western sites. A September report by security researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found the intranet was already “internally consistent and widely reachable."
It’s unlikely that Google Reader would have survived that switch, even among Iran’s savviest users.