Cover Story

Battle within

"Battle within" Continued...

Issue: "Crackdown," July 18, 2009

For many Iranians that scene won't go away even as Ahmadinejad is sworn in July 26, as planned. Said Tavassoli: "It may look like things are calming, but Iran is a changed country."

Tear down that cyberwall

Iron fists are no match for handful of techies who kept Iranian activists wired

By Mindy Belz

What kept the Iranians Twittering, YouTubing, and Facebooking after government officials shut down internet servers and blocked cell phones? Among those outside the country who set up proxies to allow Iranians access to unfiltered web servers, many were supplied by Chinese dissidents who know what it means to be cut off from the World Wide Web.

Global Internet Freedom (GIF) is a consortium formed to circumvent political censorship on the internet. When the Chinese government announced in June it would require all PCs sold in China to be equipped with a chip known as "Green Dam," which both censors and monitors web content, GIF fought back two days later with "Green Tsunami" software that can disable "Green Dam."

Using similar skills and its anti-censorship network, GIF's computer experts deployed servers to keep Iranians wired to the outside world after June 12 elections. At its climax, Iranian traffic for June 20 skyrocketed to more than 390 million hits-or an estimated 1-million-plus users-up from 200 million before the election, nearly double.

"No iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to the peaceful pursuit of justice," noted President Barack Obama at a June 23 press conference.

Months ago GIF technicians determined to support internet freedom in Iran. They went to work 24/7 after the election, when it became clear that social network sites were providing the backbone for street organization in the midst of a state-run media blackout.

Most GIF workers live in the United States but are affiliated with China's Falun Gong movement, whose members are monitored and frequently arrested.

"The drastic traffic increase from Iran overloaded and crashed our logging server at one time," said a GIF technician who could not be identified for security reasons. "GIF has been scrambling to cope with the skyrocketing traffic from Iran," he wrote in an email. "We are not sure how long we can sustain this kind of overload and the incurred cost, and will have to cut down the traffic if the situation lasts."

GIF patched in new servers to overcome mostly a state-run censoring mechanism the Iranian government has contracted out with electronics powerhouse Siemens AG. With its sophisticated technology, Google searches of "breast cancer," for instance, are blocked in Tehran because they are deemed offensive. But with cyberwalls now broken by GIF and others, that is likely to change-and a world of information technology freedom could open not only in Iran but also Burma, Vietnam, Cuba, and elsewhere.

"This handful of Davids is slaying the Goliaths of the world, even though they are without resources and operate using a handful of patched-up servers," said Hudson Institute fellow Michael Horowitz, who is championing the Internet Freedom Initiative in Washington.

Horowitz believes the United States can be more effective to support what he calls "lifelines" for Iranians and others living in closed societies. A 2008 State Department appropriation of $15 million to support increased server capacity for groups like GIF remains unspent. Rather than view it as meddling, Horowitz says Americans should see it as the 21st century equivalent of underwriting Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

"It will take the U.S. government to tear down cyberwalls," Horowitz believes, and a small bipartisan coalition of Senate and House members-led by Sens. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan.-show growing support for the cause.

Thirty years' war

A timeline of Iran's theocracy

By Kristin Chapman

Jan. 16, 1979: The Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini topples pro-Western Shah of Iran and speeds Khomeini's return to Iran after a 14-year exile.

April 1, 1979: The Islamic Republic of Iran is established.

Nov. 4, 1979: Iranian militants besiege the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage.

Sept. 22, 1980: Iraq invades Iran and Iran-Iraq war begins.

Jan. 20, 1981: After 444 days in captivity, the American hostages are released.

August 1988: Ceasefire reached in Iran-Iraq war.

June 4, 1989: Ali Khamenei becomes Iran's supreme leader after Khomeini dies June 3.

Jan. 19, 1994: Bishop Haik Hovsepian, Iranian Christian leader who spearheaded an international campaign to pressure authorities to release from prison Christian convert Mehdi Dibaj, disappears. His body is found days later.

June 8, 1995: The United States imposes oil and trade sanctions against Iran for its alleged sponsorship of terrorism.

May 23, 1997: Mohammad Khatami,
a moderate, wins the presidential election, defeating the ruling conservative Islamists by a landslide.

July 1999: Pro-democracy students at Tehran University demonstrate after the closure of the opposition newspaper Salam. Clashes with security forces lead to six days of rioting and the arrest of more than 1,000 students.

February 2000: Khatami supporters wrest control from conservatives in parliamentary elections.

April 2000: The judiciary bans publication of 16 reformist newspapers.

Jan. 29, 2002: President George W. Bush labels Iraq, Iran, and North Korea an "axis of evil."

Sept. 10, 2002: Construction begins on Iran's first nuclear reactor at Bushehr.

Nov. 14, 2004: Iran agrees to suspend most of its uranium enrichment.

February 2005: Authorities sentence Pastor Hamid Pourmand to three years in prison on charges of apostasy.

June 25, 2005: Tehran's ultra-conservative mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wins the presidential election and vows to restore "Islamic government."

August 2005: Ahmadinejad packs parliament with former Revolutionary Guards (RG) and consolidates all law enforcement and regular army under the RG. The Iranian government intensifies its campaign against non-Muslim religious minorities.

September 2005: The International Atomic Energy Agency finds Iran in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

November 2005: Ghorban Tourani, a Christian pastor who converted from Islam, is murdered.

Feb. 14, 2006: Iran resumes uranium enrichment at Natanz.

May 2006: Authorities arrest and later release Ali Kaboli, a Muslim convert to Christianity.

September 2006: Authorities arrest and later release a Christian couple for leading a house church.

December 2006: Authorities arrest at least eight house church leaders and charge them with evangelization and "acts against the national security of the Islamic Republic."

Dec. 11, 2006: Iran hosts a Holocaust conference that features several Holocaust deniers.

March 28, 2007: Iran detains 15 British sailors for 13 days after they allegedly strayed into Iranian waters.

Oct. 25, 2007: The United States imposes new sanctions against Iran.

March 2, 2008: Ahmadinejad visits Iraq, calling on foreign troops to leave while expressing Iran's desire to help rebuild.

July 9, 2008: Iran test fires a long-range missile it says is capable of hitting Israel.

Feb. 10, 2009: Ahmadinejad says he welcomes talks with the United States if they are based on "mutual respect."

April 18, 2009: An Iranian court sentences Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi to eight years in prison for allegedly spying. She is later released.

April 20, 2009: Western delegates to a UN conference on racism walk out after Ahmadinejad accuses the UN Security Council of creating "a totally racist government in the occupied Palestine."

June 2009: Disputed results following the June 12 presidential election spark protests and unrest.

July 26, 2009: Scheduled swearing-in of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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