Iran Cracks Down on Internet Use, Foreign Media

The disputed Iranian election has revealed Iran’s unique approach to internet censorship: controlling bandwidth and centralized blocking of sites. Compared with other countries that have used blanket censoring, either by shutting down access to the Internet or by disallowing certain websites, Iran’s approach is technically more complex and nuanced. Controlling bandwidth allows the internet to run, albeit at speeds sufficiently slow to discourage use through frustration. One user claimed it took a minute to load Google’s home page. Moreover, blocking websites from the government-owned telecom monopoly requires tremendous amounts of bandwidth. There is speculation as to why Iran chose this method. As one internet engineer notes, slowing internet speed allows Iran to claim that it did not shut down the internet during the election – an ironic testament to maintaining freedom. Nonetheless, many savvy users have found backdoor methods to post comments on the election through proxy servers. Short of a complete internet crackdown, the Iranian government cannot control its citizens’ desire to communicate and share ideas with the rest of the world. – YaleGlobal

Iran Cracks Down on Internet Use, Foreign Media

Christopher Rhoads, Geoffrey A. Fowler, Chip Cummins
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

In the days following
Iran's election, the government has slowed the speed of the Internet and limited access to Web sites in ways that show the growing technical skills of the country's Web censors.

The government has clamped down on traffic by apportioning less bandwidth to so-called Internet connection providers -- of which there are about 90 in
Iran
-- that provide Web access to the country's hundreds of Internet service providers.

Iranians have shared online images, video, emails and "tweets" about the protests and spreading violence -- circumventing state-controlled media. But as the public uprising has intensified, so has the government's attempt to control the flow of information. Internet speed is reduced and cellphone service interrupted.

After an increase in Internet use in the days leading up to the election, Internet traffic over broadband connections in Iran dropped 54% in the three days after the vote, compared with a week earlier, based on a sample studied by Limelight Networks Inc., an Internet content delivery company in Tempe, Ariz.

The government also has put stringent limits on reporters' access to demonstrations. The protests have been front-page news across the
Middle East, with heavy coverage on al-Jazeera and other Arab satellite news outlets. But the reporting ban affects all foreign reporters -- Western and non-Western alike. Iranian state media released footage and still photos of a rally in support of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but few camera crews appeared to brave the ban to capture footage of supporters of challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi. Al-Jazeera, the Arab news outlet based in
Qatar
, aired footage of Mousavi demonstrators. But it also said it had been told to respect the media ban.

Iran's approach to controlling the Internet contrasts with that used in
Myanmar
during the 2007 uprising there. Myanmar, which has a much lower rate of Internet use than
Iran
, eventually severed access entirely.
China
takes a more sophisticated tack, allowing high-speed access -- with extensive censorship of Web sites deemed harmful by the government.

The Iranian government appears to be taking a more nuanced -- and technically difficult -- approach: allowing the Internet to operate, albeit at a slower speed, while using a more centralized approach to blocking specific Web sites.

"The government is clearly allowing some content in and some out," said Craig Labovitz, chief scientist of Arbor Networks Inc., an Internet security company in
Chelmsford, Mass. "They're not so ham-handed as to just shut everything off."

Throttling bandwidth is almost the same as shutting off the Internet, since it makes accessing Web sites slow enough to discourage users, and makes Internet phoning difficult.

"A lot of people think this is just saving face," said Kaveh Ranjbar, a co-founder of one of Iran's largest Internet service providers and now an engineer with an Internet regulator based in
Amsterdam
. "The government can say it didn't disconnect the Internet, but the reality is you can't really use it."

The Internet connection providers, or ICPs, on Monday filed a formal complaint to government officials about the reduction in bandwidth, in some cases about 10% of what they had bought, according to Mr. Ranjbar.

One
Tehran
resident, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Behzad, said his home broadband connection has slowed so much in the past few days that it's almost unusable. Simply loading Google Inc.'s home page, he said, takes up to a minute.

"At the moment, to a large extent, it is stopping communication," Behzad said.

When he called his Internet service provider to inquire about the speed issue, he got a recorded message saying bandwidth restrictions enforced by the government-run Telecommunications Co. of Iran were causing the difficulty, and that engineers were doing their best to resolve the problem.

TCI couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

For years, the Iranian government censored Web sites by requiring Internet service providers to block sites on a constantly updated blacklist provided by the government. Now, it no longer needs service providers' cooperation -- it can block content itself through the Internet arm of its telecom monopoly. That's not easy, Mr. Ranjbar said, and it requires a lot of bandwidth. "But they're doing it now successfully," he said.

Still, the government is dealing with a mature online population. The Iranian blogosphere, with an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 active blogs, is something of an anomaly in the
Middle East. The government estimates about 21 million Iranians are online, about 28% of the population.

"What the government has found over the last few days is that blocking Internet sites is not enough," says Rob Faris, research director at
HarvardUniversity's
BerkmanCenter for Internet and Society.

Some Internet users in
Iran
report having found ways to post to services such as Twitter via proxy servers. California-based Twitter postponed Monday maintenance until Tuesday so it wouldn't disrupt Iranian Twitter users who have managed to bypass blocks. The State Department on Tuesday again asked Twitter to delay the maintenance, scheduled for 1:30 a.m. in
Iran
, but the company didn't. Twitter said in a blog post Tuesday that the maintenance "took half the time we expected."

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