Activists vow to defeat Iran’s Internet censorship

Keep Iran connected, despite any censorship efforts: That’s the goal of a small group of activists that met a few days ago in Seattle as part of the Tor developer meeting. Developers of the Tor Project meet every six months to work on the future of the anticensorship tool, but last week’s meeting couldn’t have been more timely: This coming Friday, Iran is holding parliamentary elections, and the country’s government is trying to prevent a repeat of the widespread demonstrations following the disputed presidential election in 2009. Part of this effort is a renewed clampdown on Internet access, which was a wake-up call for anticensorship activists.

Iran has long censored the Internet, blocking access to international news sites and forums for dissidents. A few weeks ago, the country stepped up its game and started temporarily blocking access to any SSL-encrypted site. This measure makes it harder to use some censorship circumvention tools, but the regime’s main goal may just have been to cut off access to webmail services that were widely used to exchange information without any obvious traces.

“Basically, they disabled Gmail,” I was told last week by Mehdi Yahyanejad, who runs, the Persian equivalent of the social news site

Check out my video interview with Yahyanejad:

Balatarin, which aggregates social and political news in a Reddit-like fashion, sees some 1.5 million unique visitors and 13 30 million page views per month. Forty percent of these readers come from within Iran, despite the site’s having been blocked for years.

A year ago, Yahyanejad spent some time analyzing how Iranians access his site. The results: Thirty percent of Iranians used VPNs, and 30 percent came to Balatarin with the help of Ultrasurf, a tool built by Falun Gong activists in the U.S. to help followers of the religion in China. Usage of Tor was small at the time but growing, Yahyanejad told me.

The Tor project itself says it has around 48,000 daily users in Iran. Usage went down significantly when Iran enacted its new censorship measures a few weeks ago, but it has since recovered, as Ars Technica recently reported.

Activists involved in the Tor project as well as other anticensorship initiatives now want to make sure that access remains available in the coming days. A key part of these efforts is a software called Obfsproxy that obfuscates any Tor traffic.

“Iran keeps deploying more and more advanced deep packet inspection,” explained Tor Project Executive Director Andrew Lewman during a phone call on Monday. Obfsproxy is designed to thwart these efforts. “If someone is looking for SSL, then we don’t look like SSL,” he told me.

Lewman is confident that Iran can’t block Obfsproxy traffic, but that doesn’t mean citizens within the country will be able to access the Web freely over the next few days. Web usage in Internet cafes and on company computers is highly monitored, and tools like Tor and its new Obfsproxy solution aren’t always available. “Getting new software rolled out in the country has been the biggest challenge,” admits Lewman.

No one knows exactly what Iran’s government has in store for the next few days. Lewman said the SSL blocking seemed a bit like a test run, which was only in effect for a few days. It is possible the regime will start to block Gmail and other sites that encrypt Web traffic again this week; or it may just turn off the Internet altogether on the day of the election, as Egypt did last year in a futile attempt to quell the Arab Spring uprising.

Sites like Balatarin have also frequently seen denial-of-service attacks around critical events, and Yahyanejad told me he wouldn’t be surprised if his site gets targeted again this week. “It’s a cat and mouse game,” he told me. But Yahyanejad believes providing Iranians with free and uncensored access to information is worth the effort, despite all of these challenges. “The fight against censorship in Iran is one of the best things the outside world could do at this point,” he said.

Image courtesy (CC-BY-SA) of Flickr user marjoleincc