Sunday, May 03, 2009

Iranians and Others Outwit Net Censors

From The New York Times, May 1, 2009, by JOHN MARKOFF:

The Iranian government, more than almost any other, censors what citizens can read online, using elaborate technology to block millions of Web sites ...Last July, on popular sites that offer free downloads of various software, an escape hatch appeared. The computer program allowed Iranian Internet users to evade government censorship.

College students discovered the key first, then spread it through e-mail messages and file-sharing. By late autumn more than 400,000 Iranians were surfing the uncensored Web.

Jewish Issues Watchdog readers will be interested to know that we have Iranian readers too. Statistics of our Middle-East readership are as follows:

Israel [51%]
Egypt [10%]
Pakistan [7%]
Iran [5%]
Cyprus [2%]
Saudi Arabia [2%]
Lebanon [2%]
Turkey [2%]
Kuwait [2%]
Jordan [2%]
United Arab Emirates [2%]
Syria [2%]
Palestinian Territory [2%]

The software was created not by Iranians, but by Chinese computer experts volunteering for the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that has beem suppressed by the Chinese government since 1999. They maintain a series of computers in data centers around the world to route Web users’ requests around censors’ firewalls.

The Internet is no longer just an essential channel for commerce, entertainment and information. It has also become a stage for state control — and rebellion against it. Computers are becoming more crucial in global conflicts, not only in spying and military action, but also in determining what information reaches people around the globe.

...The creators of the software seized upon by Iranians are members of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, based largely in the United States and closely affiliated with Falun Gong. The consortium is one of many small groups developing systems to make it possible for anyone to reach the open Internet. It is the modern equivalent of efforts by organizations like the Voice of America to reach the citizens of closed countries.

Separately, the Tor Project, a nonprofit group of anticensorship activists, freely offers software that can be used to send messages secretly or to reach blocked Web sites. Its software, first developed at the United States Naval Research Laboratories, is now used by more than 300,000 people globally, from the police to criminals, as well as diplomats and spies.

Political scientists at the University of Toronto have built yet another system, called Psiphon, that allows anyone to evade national Internet firewalls using only a Web browser. Sensing a business opportunity, they have created a company to profit by making it possible for media companies to deliver digital content to Web users behind national firewalls.

...the anticensorship efforts [are] a powerful political lever. “What is our leverage toward a country like Iran? Very little,” said Michael Horowitz, a fellow at the Hudson Institute who advises the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. “Suppose we have the capacity to make it possible for the president of the United States at will to communicate with hundreds of thousands of Iranians at no risk or limited risk? It just changes the world.”

The United States government and the Voice of America have financed some circumvention technology efforts. But until now the Falun Gong has devoted the most resources, experts said, erecting a system that allows the largest number of Internet users open, uncensored access.

Each week, Chinese Internet users receive 10 million e-mail messages and 70 million instant messages from the consortium ... these messages offer software to bypass the elaborate government system that blocks access to the Web sites of opposition groups like the Falun Gong.
...The consortium’s circumvention system works this way: Government censorship systems like the Great Firewall can block access to certain Internet Protocol addresses. The equivalent of phone numbers, these addresses are quartets of numbers like that identify a Web site, in this case, By clicking on a link provided in the consortium’s e-mail message, someone in China or Iran trying to reach a forbidden Web site can download software that connects to a computer abroad that then redirects the request to the site’s forbidden address.

... But government systems hunt for and then shut off such alternative routes using a variety of increasingly sophisticated techniques. So the software keeps changing the Internet address of the remote computer — more than once a second. By the time the censors identify an address, the system has already changed it.

...This year, a broader coalition is organizing to push for more Congressional financing of anti-filtering efforts. Negotiations are under way to bring together dissidents of Vietnam, Iran, the Uighur minority of China, Tibet, Myanmar, Cuba, Cambodia, Laos, as well as the Falun Gong, to lobby Congress for the financing.

Mr. Horowitz argues that $25 million could expand peak usage to as many as 45 million daily Internet users, allowing the systems to reach as many as 10 percent of the Web users in both China and Iran.

Mr. Zhou says his group’s financing is money well spent. “The entire battle over the Internet has boiled down to a battle over resources,” he said. “For every dollar we spend, China has to spend a hundred, maybe hundreds of dollars.”

As for the Falun Gong software, it proved a little too popular among Iranians. By the end of last year the consortium’s computers were overwhelmed. On Jan. 1, the consortium had to do some blocking of its own: It shut down the service for all countries except China.

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