Iran Implements Multi-Pronged Approach to Online Content Control as March Elections Loom

Iran has ramped up Internet controls in anticipation of parliamentary elections in early March. Over the course of the past two weeks, the Iranian government has struck at several key outlets of dissent and online circumvention.

Two weeks ago, Iranian users found that a number of social networking sites and email services, including all Google services, had become unavailable, only to return a few days later. It was later believed that Iran had been specifically targeting secure encrypted HTTPS sites; restricting encrypted connections would have crippled access to Google in Iran, because all Google services use HTTPS by default. The incident has led some to speculate that Iran is testing the waters for its developing national intranet, which has been in production since last Spring. Regardless of whether or not the recent disruptions serve as a testing ground for Iran’s intranet, the implications for freedom of online expression in the country are not positive. Previously, encrypted connections could help users avoid invasive surveillance by government authorities.  Moreover, the VPN connections to foreign proxies that help Iranian citizens circumvent filtering also rely on encrypted connections.  If the Iranian government can block all encrypted connections, it will become much harder for Iranian citizens to circumvent surveillance and censorship.

In addition to tightening the control over online information access, Iranian government officials have also targeted the sources of controversial online information creation: bloggers and journalists. Around the same time that Iran blocked encrypted connections to foreign servers, several Iranian journalists received emails threatening punishment under Islamic law for aiding “foreigners’ goals.” This has occurred against the backdrop of the currently planned execution of a Canadian computer programmer, Saeed Malekpour, who designed a program for uploading photos to the Internet. Although the program was neutral itself, it was used by a different individuals to upload pornography in Iran. Although Malekpour himself did not participate in the uploading of pornographic material, he was prosecuted and sentenced to death for “insulting and desecrating Islam.”

Iran’s recent multi-pronged offensive aimed at restricting and chilling online speech has demonstrated that the regime is taking a harsher approach to threatening online activities, particularly before the March elections. Tor, a popular circumvention tool, has been working on a new system, called Obfsproxy, which provides a secure connection that does not appear to be encrypted, evading Iran’s blockade of SSL connections.  We encourage Herdict users to try Tor, if they have not, particularly in countries with restrictive filtering policies.

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