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How Iran's Internet works

Berkman Center / Harvard
This map provides a visualization of the Iranian blogosphere in early 2009.
Clusters of blogs are associated with different themes, ranging from reformist
vs. conservative politics to Persian poetry and "CyberShia" religious discourse.
Click on the image for the Berkman Center's interactive version of the map.

An analysis of Iran's Internet reveals a deep level of diversity, with a level of surveillance (and surveillance-dodging) that goes just as deep. During this week's post-election crisis, so many reflections have been bouncing back and forth in this online hall of mirrors that it's sometimes hard to get a fix on where anyone stands - geographically or politically.

Iran is a particularly fitting battleground: A status report on the government's Internet filtering effort, just updated this week by the OpenNet Initiative, notes that Iranian Internet usage has grown nearly 50 percent every year for the past eight years - the highest growth rate in the Middle East. About 35 percent of the country's population uses the Internet, a level of penetration significantly higher than the Middle East average of 26 percent.

Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society says Iran is home to one of the world's richest and most varied blogospheres, with major clusters for secular/reformist politics as well as conservative politics, for "CyberShia" religious discussion as well as Persian poetry appreciation.

At the same time, the OpenNet Initiative says Iran has one of the world's most extensive Net filtering systems, on a par with China's. The government's Net-limiting efforts have been on full display over the past week during a clampdown on Web access, text messaging and mobile phone traffic.

OpenNet's first report on Iranian filtering, released four years ago, stirred up a controversy when it found that authorities in Tehran were using SmartFilter software, made in the U.S.A., to control Internet access. This year's update says Iran is now using home-brewed software instead, joining China as the two countries in the world "that aggressively filter the Internet using their own technology."

How do the Iranian officials do it? Only a limited number of Internet service providers have been licensed to operate, and those providers have to toe the line by using software that blocks users from accessing forbidden URLs (such as the BBC's Persian service). The forbidden list can be updated centrally - and of course, the list grew longer in advance of this month's presidential elections. If Internet users try to gain access to a blocked URL, a "blockpage" comes up instead, delivering a warning to the user that access is forbidden.

Power to the proxies
So how are Iranians getting through to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other supposedly off-limits Web destinations? My colleague at msnbc.com, Bob Sullivan, addressed the Twitter case specifically in a Red Tape posting. More generally, Iranians are being pointed to detours in the information superhighway known as proxy servers.

Inside Iran, proxy servers are like passport control points: Outgoing data traffic is checked by the filtering system on the Internet service's proxy server, and if it's heading for a forbidden place, it's blocked from going farther. But if the destination is not on the forbidden list, it's allowed to go through.

Outside Iran, the proxy servers are like transit points. Activists set up proxy servers on their own computers, using Internet Protocol numbers that don't appear on the forbidden list. Traffic from Iran can go through to those addresses with no problem. The data traffic is then forwarded to wherever it's destined to go, even if that destination is supposedly forbidden.

During the post-election crisis, proxy servers have been popping up like thousands of computerized "Casablanca" cafes around the world. The Pirate Bay, a popular file-sharing site based in Sweden, launched an anonymous Net-surfing forum to help Iran's opposition - but most of the proxy providers are amateurs.

"There's an interesting dynamic between people outside Iran who are willing to configure their PCs to set up proxy servers, and people inside Iran who are willing to put that number in their browser," said Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain, a member of the OpenNet Initiative team. "On a day-to-day basis, you wouldn't see people going to this trouble."

The rapid growth of the proxy-server movement is one of the amazing things about the response to the Iran crisis. "You are seeing people go beyond making their avatars green and actually run new software on a computer that, a few moments ago, they were using to play 'Quake,'" Zittrain said.

On the Internet, no one knows you're Iranian
The effect of this is that anonymity cloaks much of the traffic coming out of Iran nowadays. That goes for opposition activists, but it also goes for the Iranian government and its agents. Thus, there's something of a spy-vs.-spy battle going on: There's no easy way to know who is really messaging what, especially when it's passed along by numerous Twitter outsiders.

A classic example was the back-and-forth Twittering over what opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi's supporters should be doing on Friday, which is shaping up as a crucial day in the post-election crisis. "Mousavi and Karoubi ask supporters not to attend Friday prayers in Tehran," a widely followed Twitterer known as Persiankiwi reported. But other Twitter messages read, "Mousavi Facebook and Twitter possibly hacked. Please delete tweets about not attending Friday prayers."

In the end, Twitterers - including, presumably, actual Iranians - had to make up their own minds on whose word to trust.

Another twist has to do with the impermanence of the proxy-server system. Once the Iranian authorities get wind of a popular proxy, they can shut it down by adding it to their forbidden list. "It's kind of a minute-by-minute arms race rather than a marathon," Zittrain said.

Sizing up the blogosphere
Morningside Analytics' John Kelly, one of the authors of the Berkman Center's report on the Iranian blogosphere, said it will be interesting to see what effect Internet users have on the political crisis - and what effect the outcome of the crisis will have on Internet users.

One of the more interesting findings from the study was that the blog cluster centered on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's supporters was very self-contained, with relatively few connections to other parts of the blogosphere. Mousavi's cluster, in contrast, was significantly more connected with Iran's other blog clusters - which hinted at a wider spectrum of support.

Kelly said he saw a similar pattern during the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Republican-leaning blogs forming more of a self-contained "echo chamber" than Democratic-leaning blogs. Mousavi may not be Barack Obama, but Kelly finds the parallel interesting nonetheless.

"Two data points don't prove anything, but it's consistent with the idea that one of the candidates managed to break out and get support from outside the politicized base," Kelly said. That may be why Mousavi's movement seems to be more resilient than earlier post-revolution opposition movements in Iran.

Most of Iran's Weblogs were shut down in the wake of the election, but Kelly said he's hearing that they're starting to become accessible again. "If the blogosphere is coming back online, it'll be really interesting to see how this all reconfigures," he said.

More on Iran and the Internet:

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