Take That, Tehran

The U.S. is focusing on the wrong technologies in its fight to bring open information to Iran.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. A Future Tense conference on the promise and limitations of using technology to spread democracy will be held at the New America Foundation on July 13. (For more information and to sign up for the event, please visit the NAF website.)

Demonstrators in Tehran

The Obama administration has begun taking action to bring Internet freedom to Iran. This sounds wonderful.

But this approach ignores two key factors: 1) Iran already has the upper hand in this battle; 2) the current approach is dangerous to activists and focuses on too few people. If the U.S. really wants to bring free-flowing information to Iran, it needs to rethink its current strategy.

I grew up in Iran and worked as a journalist there until 2004, when I—along with 20 other bloggers, Web technicians, and journalists—was arrested by security forces for my blog, in what was the first major raid against bloggers and online activists. After two months of mistreatment and solitary confinement, I was released and soon after moved to the United States.

In January 2010, I joined a number of Internet activist and journalists from around the world for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s major address on Internet freedom. In the speech, she announced what amounts to a soft cyber-war with authoritarian regimes including Iran. “We are … supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship,” said Clinton, adding, “We are providing funds to groups around the world to make sure that those tools get to the people who need them in local languages, and with the training they need to access the Internet safely.”

According to some estimates, the State Department will spend something around $70 million on “circumvention efforts and related technology.”

In June, the New York Times reported that “the Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy ‘shadow’ Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.” One of the secretive programs that the administration is working on is a $2 million project dubbed the “Internet in a suitcase.” The idea is to send these devices to activists in authoritarian countries like Iran; recipients will be able to use wireless communication and connect to the global environment, without fear of monitoring. (The Open Technology Institute of the New America Foundation, which is part of the Future Tense partnership with Slate, is a recipient of the grant and taking part in the “Internet in a suitcase plan.) Iranian authorities promptly announced that they have plans to fight back these secretive plans. In fact, they’ve already been doing it for years. The United States has a lot of catching up to do if it hopes to use the Internet to bring freedom to Iranians.

Over the past five years, Iran has employed one of the most sophisticated filtering systems in the world. It controls Internet service providers, hunts activists via the Internet police, uses thousands of operators to monitor Web content, and can slow down or shut down the Internet when needed.

Since the contentious 2009 presidential election sparked so much international conversation about the role of social networking in democracy movements, Iran has intensified its efforts to finish the “National Internet Network,” which costs the government about $1.5 billion. The network is supposed to disconnect Iranians from the World Wide Web and enable the government to have a much higher control over the Internet. A year after the election-related unrest, Iran’s police commander told reporters, “Social networking on [the] Internet has imposed a heavy cost to the country.” Iran’s investment in curbing access shows that the government sees the threat of the power of the Internet.

Furthermore, the Iranian government has managed to mobilize an army of hackers that intensely attack opponents’ websites and hack emails. In 2010, the deputy to the militia Basij Force said, “Cyber war is a two-sided war. As we are targeted by cyber-attacks [such as the Stuxnet virus], our cyber army includes experts from Basij, university students, and students in seminaries.”

As much as I find the Obama administration’s efforts promising, I believe they are practically insufficient and will not bring any meaningful change to Iranian people’s ability to access information and organize. They will also likely do more harm than good. The budget is very small, the target group is very sensitive, and progress is very slow. We need a way to connect the millions who are without access to the Internet—not just a small group.

Moreover, it’s strange that the efforts have been made public. Many Iranians I spoke to about this news were shocked that the plan has been revealed; bringing such plans to the attention of the Tehran authorities may put people in danger. What will happen if the Iranian government captures an individual with one of those Internet suitcases? He or she will be charged with espionage. Punishment may take the form of a long prison sentence or even execution. In 2010, Iranian blogger Hossein Ronaghi Maleki, who was involved in anti-proxy programming, was sentenced to 15 years in prison just for fighting against censorship. The same applies to cell phones that might be equipped with such U.S.-backed technologies; they will be just too risky for people to try. A better use of U.S. Internet freedom funds would be to develop better anti-proxy software programs, which is dangerous, expensive work for in-country digital activists.

Furthermore, the Internet, while important, is not the entire game. In Iran, only 38 percent of the population is even connected to the Internet. Almost 90 percent of these people use sluggish dial-up-modem connections; sometimes it takes one minute to open a page. In contrast, satellite TVs have very broad outreach. But the Iranian government jams satellite TVs, including the Voice of America and the BBC. The United States would make far more of a difference by investing in technology to circumvent Iran’s satellite-jamming process. Last year, I tried to emphasize the importance of this strategy when I testified before the Senate judiciary committee’s subcommittee on human rights and the law. I emphasized that the commercial carriers are reluctant to broadcast reform-oriented Iranian TV content because of the jamming. Using new technologies that jam the jammers, so to speak, would be a wise investment for the U.S. government.

This approach would give millions access to TV channels that fight back against the Islamic Republic’s incessant propaganda. The U.S. would also be wise to invest heavily in the underfunded Voice of America TV channel, which is popular in Iran. VoA Persian could be the most powerful tool to fight Iran’s anti-American propaganda. If authorities can find a way to unblock VoA Persian, the U.S. will be able to reach beyond the middle-class and city dwellers. And this approach would not place people in danger: Millions are already tuning into satellite TV, even in small villages, even though it’s illegal. On occasion the police have gone door to door in big cities to intimidate people into not using it, but once they are gone people merely cover their dishes and turn the TV back on.

I believe that the United States is in a propaganda war with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Winning this war will require more than just providing Internet access for a couple of hundred people. Tehran Internet freedom sounds great in speeches like Clinton’s, but the United States’ current plan to change the Iranian Web landscape is simply not realistic. In fact, the current plan makes me suspect that the U.S. isn’t taking Iran as seriously as it ought to.