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Finding a way around Iranian censorship

Activists utilize Twitter, Web tricks to sidestep blocks

Protests in Iran and subsequent government crackdowns on the Internet are putting social-networking technologies to new uses. Twitter has been a particularly effective tool: Because tweets can be sent from many websites, the Iranian government can't block every possible Twitter source. Protests in Iran and subsequent government crackdowns on the Internet are putting social-networking technologies to new uses. Twitter has been a particularly effective tool: Because tweets can be sent from many websites, the Iranian government can't block every possible Twitter source. (Associated Press)
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / June 19, 2009
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Derek Lowe and his Iranian-born wife were appalled by the violence that came in the wake of Iran’s disputed presidential election, and by the Tehran government’s attempts to censor news of the upheavals. And so they joined the protest, as best they could from their home in Acton. They decided to become members of the legion of Internet activists fighting the Iranian government’s aggressive attempts at post-election censorship. Armed with their computers and Internet access, they are helping Iranian protesters get the words and images out of their country for the world to see.

Lowe, a research fellow at Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, has turned his home computer into what is known as a “proxy’’ - a virtual host that substitutes for the home connection of users in Iran, allowing them to bypass the filters employed by Iranian government censors. “This is about all that I can think of to do that could have any concrete effect,’’ Lowe said. “It comes under the category of ‘better than nothing.’ ’’

The crisis, and the response of Internet users around the world, is helping to redefine the way the Internet helps people communicate. Notably, it has highlighted the value of the social networking service Twitter, which has been used by Iranian activists to share their grievances with the world, seemingly at the very moment when Twitter’s value was being questioned.

In the fight against Iranian censorship, Twitter’s role is only part of the story. The service simply generates brief text messages, which are read by a relatively small number of Internet buffs. By contrast, hundreds of millions have seen the shocking images of riots and assaults captured by Iranians on cellphones and digital cameras. Most have been distributed through popular Internet sites like YouTube, the video hosting site, and photo site Flickr. In theory, the Iranian government can easily block its citizens’ access to such sites. But in practice, it’s not so easy.

In the United States and many other countries, multiple telecom companies handle Internet traffic. In Iran, it all goes through the government-run company DCI, or Data Communication of Iran. DCI can program its Internet routers to block access to particular sites, like YouTube. DCI can also throttle back the total amount of Internet data entering or leaving the country, or it can shut off the Internet altogether.

That happened briefly last Saturday, as the Iranian government announced the landslide reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Arbor Networks Inc., a company in Chelmsford that tracks global Internet activity, said that on June 13, Iran shut down all Internet traffic for about 45 minutes, then resumed service at a much lower level. Arbor Networks chief scientist Craig Labovitz said Iran’s Internet traffic remains at 30 to 40 percent below its normal rate. He thinks it’s because DCI is scrambling to install new filtering systems that will block politically sensitive Web services like YouTube while letting other traffic through.

Ethan Zuckerman, senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, said Iran can’t afford a long-term Internet shutdown. “It would grind commerce to a halt,’’ Zuckerman said, because many Iranian companies rely on the Internet to run their international operations. So DCI must confine itself to censoring unwelcome Internet content.

Meanwhile, skilled activists are bypassing the blockade. Because Twitter messages can be sent from many websites, not just Twitter.com, the Iranian government can’t find and block every possible Twitter source. Other Web traffic can sneak through proxy services located outside Iran, such as the one set up by the Lowes. An Iranian user goes to a proxy site in, say, Boston, and types the address of the site he really wants to visit - YouTube, for example. Because Iranian censors aren’t blocking the Boston proxy site, citizens can use it to reach websites they can’t directly access.

Of course, proxies can have short lives. The censors are constantly identifying and blocking them. Activists respond by assigning new Internet addresses to existing proxies, and by setting up as many new proxy computers as possible.

Vertex researcher Lowe visited a proxy recruitment website. He installed the necessary software and instructions on Wednesday, and gave the recruiter the address of his new proxy. Lowe hadn’t gotten any traffic from Iran as of yesterday, but it could take some time to share the address of the proxy with activists inside Iran. Such proxy addresses are not published on Twitter or on public websites; Iranian telecom workers might see the addresses and set their routers to block them. Instead, the proxy activists must provide the addresses directly to trusted people inside Iran, through phone calls, e-mails, or faxes.

Lowe said the election controversy has made him realize that he can help to fight government censorship anywhere in the world, just by running a piece of software on his computer. Once the crisis in Iran is resolved, “I will certainly keep my eyes open for the next situation where this might possibly help,’’ Lowe said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.