Iran: Hacking Ya-Haq?

By Tala Dowlatshahi

We all know the Iranian government does not support free expression. Iran remains the largest prison for journalists -- over 40 behind bars. But just where does the government currently stand in terms of censorship and surveillance of its people?

The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was himself a victim of his own filtering program, when earlier this month his fatwa on anti-filtering tools was blocked on Iranian websites just for containing the phrase "anti-filtering."

In recent weeks, there were a slew of threats made by the Iranian authorities to intensify online harassment of journalists and the media. In February, the government cut off all access to secure web (HTTPS) connections. And scores of reporters have been rounded up according to Reporters Without Borders. Some of them will receive lashes while others are being tortured and sentenced to hefty jail terms.

Narges Mohammadi, the journalist and spokesperson for the advocacy group the Center for Human Rights Defenders, has been held in solitary confinement in Iran's notorious Evin prison since late April. The prison houses dozens of Iran's political prisoners. Mahmud Shokraieh, a cartoonist, was notified on May 3 (World Press Freedom Day) that he has been sentenced to 25 lashes for portraying a local parliamentary representative as a footballer.

Often the violations these journalists are charged with include disseminating "anti-government" propaganda.

The communications minister also proudly announced in recent weeks that in response to growing dissent from citizens about the Islamic Republic's strict policy on Internet usage, the government will roll out a new initiative to disconnect itself completely from western Internet search portals including Google, Yahoo and Hotmail. Instead, the country will be connected to its own version of Google -- Ya-Haq, or God, for a better word. The portal will filter all kinds of information including media reports from the West and any criticism about the regime's handling of the nuclear crisis.

Iran is already setting up web accounts for its new search engine and dozens have already signed on to "God".

I will be in Brussels this week to address the Iran censorship issue at the Global Online Freedom and Corporate Responsibility conference. I will give account of my personal experiences as an Iranian-American blogger. I will tell participants that Iran has been extremely savvy in cracking down on information exchange since the 2009 Green Revolution protests. I will tell them my Facebook account was inexplicably shut down during the protests and that Facebook responded to my demands with a short note from their executive offices in Palo Alto explaining that my account was turned back on and suffered problems because I was making too many friends from Iran in one day.

I will also criticize my fellow participants from Nokia-Siemens and the European telecommunications industry, since Iran now has one of the most sophisticated tools for controlling and censoring the Internet thanks to Europe. The DPI (deep packet inspection) program which Nokia admitted (and then denied) it sold to the Iranians, has been a key tool used by government officials to track online data, from emails to internet phone calls via Skype. I will also tell participants how astonished I am at the Iranian government's ability, despite sanctions by Europe and the United States, to circumvent these measures. The Danish company RanTek, which receives surveillance software from the Israeli security company, Allot, of all places, has recently resold a mobile phone filtering system to Iran.

The Iranian government's consistent repressive policies towards netizens (online citizen activists and bloggers) has increased two fold in recent years as the government continues to step up its program to monitor, censor and persecute dissidents. Bloggers are now being sentenced to death, and still the Iranian government manages to escape sanctions to prevent European companies from selling surveillance equipment. If you are going to impose sanctions on a repressive regime, why not go all the way and block all sales of technology that are employed to suppress citizens?

In Brussels, I will call on both European and U.S. technology companies to introduce international regulations and standards, much like E.U. regulations on trade, on the provision of technology that threatens cyber-citizens. I will also demand greater controls of certain export technologies so that companies will not contribute to the jailing of a journalist or netizen by a repressive regime. I will also call on all companies in the West to work together to create a bureau of global internet freedom with the goal of combating online censorship and to protect the data of internet users.

I know these measures are urgent and necessary. But even with the most sophisticated censorship and surveillance technology, Iranian activists still manage to get the truth out. Even if they have to hack Ya-Haq.