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Internet Access Severely Curbed in Iran

Internet Access Severely Curbed in Iran

Iran's government is taking strong measures to restrict access to the Internet for much of the country's population. Workarounds are still possible, but they're increasingly challenging to achieve. "The government's goal isn't to keep all Iranians from getting to forbidden sites," noted law professor Derek Bambauer. "It's simply to make it difficult and costly enough to deter the majority of them."

By Erika Morphy
02/10/12 3:32 PM PT

Reports are coming out of Iran that the country is increasingly squeezing Internet access to certain sites, including websites that use the HTTPS protocol. Many tech-savvy users who were able to circumvent restrictions to gain access to an unfettered Internet have found their usual methods are no longer effective.

One prominent blogger in the country who relied on portals in other countries to connect to the Internet has found that the software connection rarely works anymore -- and when it does sputter to life, it is so slow it may as well stay off, The Washington Post reported.

The Iranian government appears to have ramped up censorship through deep packet inspection of SSL traffic, selective blocking of IP Address and TCP port combinations, and some keyword filtering, according to proxy solution provider Tor. They have partially blocked access to Tor's website.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that some form of Internet censorship is taking place, noted the Iran Media Program, which pointed to several tweets reporting on the situation:

"[It's been] Around half an hour [that] all of websites are blocked in #Iran, from supreme leader's website to IT blogs!" wrote Amin Sabeti, for example.

"All websites with servers outside Iran have been blocked; maybe they are testing the National Internet," wrote Omiddd.

Here Comes the National Internet?

Iran's National Internet -- a countrywide firewall that is meant to block out websites undesirable to the government -- is the widely suspected culprit.

The government has talked about the National Internet before, but it was vague about the details and timing. With the one-year anniversary of the Arab Spring on hand, now might be a good time, from the government's perspective.

To a certain extent, Iran will succeed in enforcing its restrictions, Marcus Holmes, an assistant professor of political science at Fordham, told TechNewsWorld.

It is theoretically possible to block all outside traffic and create an Iranian intranet, he said, although it is more likely that the government will try to restrict Western site access by blocking certain services, such as SSL.

However, it will not be totally successful, as there are always hackers -- not to mention very Internet-savvy citizens -- who are willing to get creative in developing workarounds. One possibility might be enabling SSL traffic to pose as non-SSL traffic, he suggested.

Then there is the question of other modes of communication, Holmes said.

"Historically, citizens have turned to other technologies, such as cellular and GSM, to coordinate when shut off from the outside world," he pointed out. "Ultimately, it will be difficult for Iran to control information. Creativity and desire often find a way around this type of governmental action."

High-Tech Cat-and-Mouse Game

Iranian citizens have a long history of playing cat-and-mouse games with authorities, Derek Bambauer, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, told TechNewsWorld.

"Iran has long sought to block its citizens from accessing information freely. The government confiscates satellite dishes, blocks websites, and keeps Iranians from bypassing those blocks by interdicting circumvention technologies like proxy servers," he said.

Clever Iranian citizens have always been able to bypass these restrictions, he continued. Iranians can use more exotic technologies, like Tor, to access blocked sites.

Indeed, the majority of Tor users have not been affected by the government's blocks -- at least, not so far -- according to Tor.

A more mundane workaround might be dial-up access to international ISP numbers, Bambauer continued.

Satellite Internet access also offers some users a chance to bypass blocking, he said.

"The government's goal isn't to keep all Iranians from getting to forbidden sites," noted Bambauer. "It's simply to make it difficult and costly enough to deter the majority of them."


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