Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Iran Tightens Web Filters

Red Herring:

October 24, 2005

An Iranian tech company claims it can stop censorship circumvention tools.

Civil liberties advocates voiced concern Monday over Iran’s plans to tighten its grip on Internet use with new technology that allegedly can get around counter-censorship tools.

The country has contracted an Iranian company, Delta Global, to set up a new online censorship system, according to a report by Reporters Without Borders. Delta Global head Rahim Moazemi told the Iranian press that he wanted to end “the anarchy of the Internet Service Providers.”

Because filters are implemented at the ISP level, censorship is not consistent throughout the country. That’s because sites may be blocked by one ISP but not another.

Still, Iran is “among a small group of states with the most sophisticated state-mandated filtering systems in the world,” according to the Open Net Initiative.

The ONI, made up of researchers from the Harvard Law School, the University of Toronto, and Cambridge University, studies government use of Internet filtering and surveillance. Experts at the ONI and other advocacy organizations are keeping watch, but aren’t particularly worried about Delta Global’s filters.

“The claim they can beat all is somewhat silly,” said Chris Palmer, technology manager at the Electronic Frontiers Foundation. “People can always fall back on out-of-band communications, and hide their activity in traffic that looks legitimate to censors.”

Mr. Palmer added that censorship and counter-censorship tools are always changing, making it unlikely that any filter or circumvention tool will ever become foolproof. Even the EFF’s TOR, a network within a network that protects communication from a form of surveillance known as traffic analysis, can be vulnerable, Mr. Palmer said.

Internet Censorship Battle

Open-access group has long offered its Circumventor program, which routes activity to a computer outside a censored area.

“So far it has worked almost 100 percent of the time… and no blocking programs that we know of are capable of blocking it,” said Bennett Haselton, who maintains the Peacefire site.

Mr. Haselton added: “I don’t know if Delta Global really believes their filters will be able to stop the Circumventor, or if they are just hoping that people won’t find out about it.”

New software alone can’t determine who wins the Internet censorship battle, said Nart Villeneuve, director of technical research at University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, one of the partners in the ONI.

“It is not a question of development in a technical sense. It is simply a matter of devoting enough human resources to find the locations of public circumvention systems and adding it to current block lists,” Mr. Villeneuve said.

Mr. Villeneuve suggested the authority can streamline its efforts, perhaps by centralizing the location for adding URLs and distributing the block lists.

“This would allow Iran to shorten the window of opportunity for using public circumvention systems,” he said.

Western Companies’ Involvement

The ONI also reported that in Iran, ISP subscribers must promise in writing not to visit non-Islamic sites.

Iran, the group said, is one of several countries that uses SmartFilter software by San Jose, California-based company Secure Computing.

Secure Computing spokesperson David Burt said the company sells SmartFilter to ISPs in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, but not to Iran.

"We don't sell any software to any entity in Iran. The ISPs are using it illegally," Mr. Burt said, adding that Secure Computing is now blocking downloads from ISPs in Iran.

Critics say software isn’t the only way Western companies are “complicit” in censorship.

In June, Microsoft admitted its China-based portal censored certain blogs (see MSN Plays By China’s Rules). Yahoo provided information that led to the 10-year prison sentence for Chinese journalist Shi Tao in September (see China Tightens Web News Grip).

In both cases, the companies defended themselves by pointing out that if they want to do business in a country, they must respect the nation’s culture as well as its laws.


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