June 16, 2009 at 9:00 AM ET
When you live in a place where every Starbucks offers wireless access and every salesman seems to have a Web-anywhere laptop gadget for wireless broadband, it's hard to imagine that Internet access could disappear overnight. But the election unrest in Iran is a stark reminder that Web access is indeed fragile -- and it's not hard for a determined government to curtail or cut off connection to the outside world.
Several reports indicate Internet access in Iran has been disrupted since the election this weekend. And while there is some disagreement over the source of that disruption, there is no doubt that Iranians' connection to the outside world is precarious. The nation's state-run Internet provider, Data Communications Iran (DCI,) gets its bandwidth from six regional providers. On Saturday, only one of those six pipes was operating normally, according to an analysis by that New Hampshire-based Renesys Corp., a firm that observes Internet traffic flow. That means almost all traffic in and out of Iran flowed through one set of fiber-optic cables passing through Turkey. The pipe would be easy to cut, and relatively easy to filter according to content.
But something even more subtle is probably hampering Iran's Web connectivity, says Julien Pain, a veteran of the free press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders. During Friday's election and immediately afterward, Internet traffic slowed to a crawl. Such ratcheting down of bandwidth is often used as a sneaky censorship tool, he said.
"There is an artificial bandwidth limit, a way to filter by lowering the volume of data that can be transmitted," he said.
Pain now runs a site called The Observers, which publishes user-submitted videos from hot spots around the world. The slowdown is impacting all Web surfing in Iran, and acts as a deterrent to dissident behavior, he said. It's become much harder for his users to upload first-person videos, for example.
"Three days ago people were able to send me small video files easily, but today it's really, really hard. Everything is taking a really long time," he said.
The technique had been used in the past to discourage use of YouTube and other video services inside Iran, he said.
Iran is among the most wired Middle Eastern countries. About 23 million out of 70 million Iranian adults have Web access, and 45 million have mobile phones. An outright cutoff from the Web would be politically difficult, but Iranian officials are using a variety of tactics to stunt Net use by opponents, according to many observers.
Pain says the trouble began in late May, when access to Facebook was cut off. The opposition party had begun to successfully organize campaign events using the social networking site. Thousands of politically oriented Web sites were also blocked, he said. While Facebook access has been restored, and e-mails are getting in and out of Iran now, Pain said the overall slowdown is making such Web services much harder to use.
'A single point of control'
With all the ways Westerners can get online, it may be hard to believe Net access can be blocked so effectively.
"People don't really know how the Internet works," Pain said. "There is a general impression that it's unblockable, buy when you look into the details of how it really works, it's not."
The Web is actually much easier to control than old-fashioned radio transmissions or phone calls.
The Voice of America, for example, has discontinued radio broadcasts in regions like the Ukraine, opting for Internet -based transmission instead. But while jamming radio signals over a wide region is nearly impossible, cutting off Web sites is relatively simple.
And while listeners could tune into radio broadcasts in anonymity, it's often trivial for countries to observe what their citizens do when they're online.
"It's actually a very dangerous medium to communicate in," Pain said. "That's counterintuitive, but it's true. ... And most people don't know what's at stake."
Ultimately, almost all Internet traffic into and out of a country must flow through one or more "backbone" providers. Even wireless Internet access through Wi-Fi or cell phones, which might seem to avoid land lines, ultimately must find their way onto the Web through a backbone. In a country like Iran or China, where there is only one state-run ISP, filtering is relatively easy.
"There are central points of control in some countries," said Jim Cowie, founder of Renesys. "Everybody in Iran who has net access must go through DCI. They are the sole face of Iran looking out into the world."
Cowie, however, doesn't believe the current Iranian Net slowdown is the result of state censorship. He thinks it's simply that the national election has drawn international interest and that the increased traffic has jammed the system.
But reports of communications jamming inside Iran are so widespread they are hard to ignore. The BBC says that some Iranians are complaining that they can't receive their broadcasts and suspect satellite jamming technology is being used. There have been complaints of text message failures too, though it's impossible to say whether censorship or high traffic is to blame.
Improved filtering software
Slowing all Net access by cutting off or shrinking the pipe into the country is a brutal tool for censorship, but it's hardly the only one. Filtering software can be used to stop selected kinds of content from getting to and from users -- or to stop access to entire domains, like Facebook.com. Pain says Iran is just one of many countries that deploy such filtering software.
"Burma blocks Web sites, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba ... on every continent, in every authoritarian regime of the world, they filter Web sites," he said. In China, he said, a recent controversial program forces citizens to deploy such filters on their own personal computers.
Letitia King, a spokeswoman for the Voice of America, says new Web filtering technologies are more subtle, but even more disturbing. Rather than filter out an entire news site like msnbc.com or CNN.com, countries like China are now using software that remove or obscure only individual pages. That keeps consumers unaware that their access to information is limited.
"This is very real and concrete problem," she said. "People have to be determined to get news."
One way they do that is to outfox the filters. Protesters in authoritarian countries -- including Iran -- use a series of evasive maneuvers in a cat-and-mouse game to get around Web content filters. The Voice of America offers one version of "circumvention" software, which tricks filters by routing Web traffic through "proxy" servers that relay Internet Web sites through alternate computers to trick the filters. King says traffic to the Web sites offering the anti-filter software has risen six fold since last month.
While Pain says proxy servers do often work, they don't cause much trouble for a regime intent on suppressing freedom of information.
"These regimes don't care about the 0.1 percent who are able to circumvent filters," he said. "They are usually on a blacklist and monitored in the regular way anyway. What they really want is to do is block the majority of the population so that they don't care about these matters or will be too scared to say anything. For example, if you know your e-mail can be intercepted, then you aren't going to say anything political."