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A Step by Step Guide on How to Fight Internet Censorship in Iran and What the U.S. Can Do

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We have learned in school that "information is power." In some countries, information and spreading the truth among the people means saving lives and alleviating the suffering of those who are in pain. That's why many of activists, bloggers and journalists, who are aggressively trying to stop the tragic human rights violations in Iran by gathering and spreading information about current events, believe that providing internet access for the Iranian people, and other people in the world in similar conditions, is not a political, but a moral act. There is a direct, and positive connection between free access to Internet-information, and the quality of people's lives.

I've talked to many of my friends -- bloggers, journalists and those who have difficulties to even send a simple email or chat on Yahoo messenger over the past eight months. Almost all of them believe that any kind of support to give Iranians more access to the Internet is supporting human rights and democracy in the country, supporting security in the Persian Gulf region, and most importantly saving the lives of many people who are threatened by restrictions on information that allow the Iranian government to operate behind closed doors as it violates their basic rights.

Almost all of them believe that it's a form of moral support. It should not be seen or used as a means to pursue hidden political purposes, but as promoting human rights as defined by international standards. Providing internet access for Iranians should not be seen as a part of a possible regime change plan in Iran, because it is up to the Iranian people to decide what to do with their freedom.

Some might say Iranians' obstacles to have access to the internet is Tehran's domestic issue. But it's not. It concerns a country stuck between other countries that either suffer from radicalism or that export terrorists to the rest of the world, a country between two major sources of conflict in the region, Iraq and Afghanistan. That's why such support is directly related to the security of the region and the world in a long run.

We should not forget that if it were not for the internet, we would have the same picture of the Iranian government that we had 9 months ago. And if it were not for the limited access to internet that exists, God knows how many more people would have been killed or tortured inside prisons in Iran.

The United States and some European countries have shown interest in supporting Iranians to fight against internet censorship and provide more access to information via the internet. But they should not forget the importance of applying standards in a balanced -- not political -- way. Not only Iran, but also numerous other countries, violate the right to access the internet, and the United States and European countries should support compliance across the board. Otherwise, the charge of holding double standards will stick.

But what should be done? Here is a list of actions, policy shifts, and issues that are essential to giving Iranians more access to information and helping them fight against the Tehran's strong censorship:

Modifying the U.S. sanctions on Iran

Certain sanctions or interpretations of the sanctions have seriously damaged the ability of Iranians to access the Internet and need to be modified.

1) Software download is blocked to IPs from Iran: Many major companies such as Google and Microsoft block downloads to people in Iran in fear of sanctions. For example, Google Talk or Google Chrome, one of the safest web browsers, is not available for download to Iranian users. All mass-market software that is useful for publishing, communications, and education should be exempted from the sanctions.

2) Online advertising is not allowed for Persian websites: Many companies such as Google or Facebook do not include Persian (Farsi) as a supported language for online advertising websites or allow targeting users with such a language. This is problematic when activists want to use such advertising tools to reach out to Iranians in Iran. It also prevents many of the human rights activist websites from making small amounts of money on advertising that can help them to pay for their server costs.

3) Iranians are not allowed to pay for domain purchases and related issues. In result, Iranian government-sponsored hackers stole many of the domains belonging to Iranian human rights activists because such activists have difficulties registering such domains under their names and have to do this through proxies. But, there is no way to verify their location or identity when their web domains are stolen. Just in the past few months, a few hundred domains registered on Godaddy have been stolen by the Iranian government and there is no way to get them back because the original owners were not allowed to buy those domains legally on Godaddy in the first place.

4) Funding is needed to hire a limited number of web developers in Iran. Many of the small activist groups need to hire developers to build their websites. The number of web developers with a command of the Persian language outside of Iran is very few. These groups need to be allowed to hire web developers in Iran. The amount of payments could be capped to $10000 per year to make sure such a solution is not abused for other purposes.

5) Online access and advertising should be exempted from the current sanction regime via a categorical order. Without a categorical order, such a problem cannot be solved. The reason is that the Iranian market is very small and many of the US-based Internet companies prefer to stay away from it instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees to apply for an export license.

6) European companies who still sell surveillance or censorship technology to the Iranian government need to be exposed and face sanctions. A number of large European countries have provided Iranian government with technologies to monitor SMS and communications between Iranians. Without the pressure from the European Parliament and U.S. government, taking actions against these companies would be impossible.

Internet access and Security:

1) Giving VPN accounts to the activists and journalists in Iran: VPN provides the best security and functionality compared to any other solution. VPN accounts would need to be bought from different VPN providers and distributed to the activists through different online websites. Each major human rights or pro-democracy website would be given between 100-500 VPN accounts. They would distribute them to trusted activists in Iran they know. [Virtual Private Network- VPN gives extremely secure connections between private networks linked through the internet. It allows remote computers to act as though they were on the same secure, local network]

2) Purchasing Skype credits for activists in Iran: Using Skype credits, activists in Iran can make secure international calls. Skype's encryption is one of the best among all the voice services.

3) Anti-jamming for satellite broadcasts: The Iranian government sends jamming signals to commercial satellites. Many of the commercial carriers are reluctant to broadcast independent or reform-oriented Iranian TV content because the Iranian government can blind their satellite. Commercial satellites can be jammed because the upload and download signal is the same and the upload signal is a fixed frequency. However, military satellites are built to resist such jamming. For Iranian broadcasts, the US government could dedicate a specific satellite, which is hardened against jamming using technologies similar to military satellites.

4) Provide Iranians with free satellite internet: The technology for internet access is not cheap but considering the importance of internet access in Iran, it is worth investing on this issue. There are technologies for one-way delivery of content or two-way interactive internet access. Providing such services free of charge to the Iranian people can go a long way in breaking the monopoly of the Iranian government on the dissemination of information in Iran.

5) Email security: Unfortunately, no secure free email provider exists. Yahoo is particularly insecure, while Gmail provides more security but is still vulnerable to key loggers. For activists, there is a need for an email service to have security as high as PayPal accounts or bank accounts. For example, the login process should be resistant against keyloggers. This can be achieved by showing images or other techniques.

6) PC security: One idea is to provide the activists with free security software and anti-virus software.

Collaborating with the human rights community

Finally, private companies and initiatives can provide resources to support the development of technology designed to combat internet censorship including those technologies that surpass filters. There are a number of professionals and companies that are focused on developing software that provide such technologies for Iranian users that could be supported.