Iran’s Opposition Seeks More Help in Cyberwar With Government

The New York Times
At a time when the Obama administration is pressing for harsher sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program, democracy advocates in Iran have been celebrating the recent decision by the United States to lift sanctions on various online services, which they say only helped Tehran to suppress the opposition.

But it is still a long way from the activists’ goal of lifting all restrictions on trade in Internet services, which opposition leaders say is vital to maintaining the open communications that have underpinned the protests that erupted last summer after the disputed presidential election. In recent months the government has carried out cyberwarfare against the opposition, eliminating virtually all sources of independent news and information and shutting down social networking services.

The sanctions against online services — provided through free software like Google Chat or Yahoo Messenger — were intended to restrict Iran’s ability to develop nuclear technology, but democracy advocates say they ended up helping the government repress its people. “The policies were contradictory,” said Ali Akbar Moussavi Khoini, a former member of Parliament who now lives in Washington, where he pressed for the change.

The new measure will enable users in Iran to download the latest circumvention software to help defeat the government’s efforts to block Web sites, and to stop relying on pirated copies that can be far more easily hacked by the government.
But the government’s opponents say they need still more help in getting around the government’s information roadblocks.

“The Islamic Republic is very efficient in limiting people’s access to these sources, and Iranian people need major help,” said Mehdi Yahyanejad, the founder of one of the largest Persian-language social networking Web sites, the United States-based Balatarin. “We need some 50 percent of people to be able to access independent news sources other than the state-controlled media.”
Web sites, social networking and satellite television became major sources of news and tools for organizing and mobilizing people. The opposition posted news about the demonstrations and videos of the security forces’ use of violence against protesters. A video of her final moments turned Neda Agha Soltan, the 26-year-old woman who was shot by government forces, into an international symbol.

But the authorities came to realize the significance of the networking tools and began efforts to eliminate them. In December its “cyberarmy” attacked Twitter, which was a major communications tool for the opposition. The hackers redirected Twitter users to a page in English that read, “This page has been hacked by the Iranian cyberarmy.”

In recent months the government slowed the Internet to a crawl, so that users were unable to perform the simplest operations, like opening Gmail or Yahoo accounts. It has become impossible to post a video, and opposition Web sites have been blocked. The government has also jammed opposition and news satellite channels, including Persian-language Voice of America television and BBC Persian, which were watched by millions.

The government has jailed many cyberexperts in recent months, charging some with “waging war against God,” potentially a capital crime, for sending political e-mail messages. This month Parliament announced a $500 million budget for cyberwarfare, the Fars news agency recently reported.
The opposition tried to fight back with software designed to circumvent the restrictions, but that became a losing battle after Internet service was slowed.
Opposition leaders say they would like to have access to Internet hardware — any products made by Cisco Systems, for example, are subject to sanctions — and high-speed satellite Internet service, which experts say is generally harder to jam than broadcasts. That service is available from the American company Hughes Global Services, in Europe and the Middle East, and could be used by Iranians. But Payam Herischi, senior director at Hughes, said that the company was reluctant to allow its satellites to provide service to Iran until sanctions are lifted.
Iran, which has no communications satellites of its own, is dependent on foreign companies for broadcasting all its local channels as well as English, Persian and Arabic channels. Its jamming of BBC Persian and Voice of America violated international regulations.

“What Iran is doing can cause serious chaos in the international satellite order,” said Sadeq Saba, the director of Persian-language BBC television. “If other countries begin to retaliate and jam Iran’s channels, there will be serious chaos.”
After Iranian jamming last December of the Voice of America and the BBC, the French company Eutelsat duplicated the services, which were on one of its popular Hot Bird satellites, on a more advanced satellite that is resistant to jamming. But that required Iranians to purchase new equipment, which is illegal and hard to find.
While most in the opposition focused on the tactical battle with the government, some saw the struggle in broader terms.
“This is not about the opposition Green Movement in Iran now,” said Mr. Khoini, a visiting scholar at Stanford. “This is about democracy and the fact that when people have access to information, they can make wise choices. No one, even the current leaders of the opposition, can hijack the movement like the way the Islamists did in the 1979 revolution if people can have access to free information.”


Post a Comment