The Battles To Keep Iran’s Web Up And Running
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
It’s no secret the Iranian government doesn’t much care for the Internet. At least, when it comes to their own citizens.
While maintaining its oil and financial industries’ links to the rest of the world via the Internet, Tehran continues to boast about creating it’s own “Halal Internet”, a one-nation-only intra-net that would cut off most of its population from the World Wide Web. “Aimed at Muslims on a ethical and moral level,” says Deputy Minister for Economic Affairs Ali Agha Mohammad, the Iran-only intranet would prevent all but the most web-savvy Iranians from accessing any website not based there.
There is precedent: North Korea operates what it calls the “Kwangmyong”, a nation-wide computer network that keeps its citizens safely confined within a tiny network controlled entirely by Pyongyang. But North Korea is a vastly different society, and one that has never had relatively free (if occasionally restricted) access to the entirety of the World Wide Web. Iran’s population is young, tech-smart and blog-crazy; approximately 30 million Iranians surf the web daily. That’s a population unlikely to quietly accept being unplugged from the Internet.
But this week, Iran might have begun trying to do just that.
“They are afraid of any kind of demonstration.”
Last week, analysts began tracking a significant drop in Internet traffic from Iran connecting to the rest of the web. Most of that traffic, writes Joe Brodkin at the excellent Ars Technica, involved security or encryption protocols, such as the “HTTPS” secure connection, or the SSL and TLS encryption layers that can cloak a user’s identity. For years Iranians have used these and other anonymizing services like Tor or Freegate* to evade Tehran’s censorship of certain parts of the web.
But as Thomas Erdbrink wrote recently in the Washington Post, many of those services have now stopped working. “When it sporadically returns, speeds are so excruciatingly slow that sites such as Facebook and Balatarin.com – which evaluates unofficial news and rumors in Farsi — become unusable,” he writes. As of this writing (Feb. 17, 3 hours UTC), web traffic from Iran appears to be bouncing back.
A quick check shows Iran continues to block some sites (voanews.com, unsurprisingly, among them, as are Facebook and Twitter.) Others, such as Google, remain unblocked, but only as long as the web user isn’t using any security-enhanced tools.
“They have invariably messed with HTTPS,” says Ken Berman, who heads up Information Systems and Technology for the International Broadcasting Bureau (and the parent agency of VOA.) “HTTPS was shut down for almost a week. Even banking systems were down last Thursday till Sunday.”
Iran watchers noted the timing of the traffic squeeze – centering around Feb. 14. Last year that day, known as Bahman 25 in Iran, saw wide-scale protests in Iranian cities. Those protests were organized in part by bloggers, wanting to voice solidarity with the so-called “Arab Spring” protesters in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt.
This year, bloggers had hoped to mount similar demonstrations. But they were unable to communicate, largely because the web was largely useless. One Iranian blogger, Dara 1390, posted (in translation)
“Without any doubt the February 14th demonstrations are the reason why the government has interrupted the internet. They are afraid of any kind of demonstration in the streets. We do not know how people will react on February 14 but the regime is making itself ready for the day.”
This year Feb. 14 came and went without any major protests. The Iranian opposition group at Kaleme.com posted that security forces were out in heavy numbers in Tehran, leaving Azadi Square “…surrounded by security forces as well as special protection and special guards.” For the moment, the police have left the streets and web appears to be running again – if slowly.
So was this a crackdown to smother protests, a dry run for the national intranet, or something else? And whatever the answer, what can be done if (more like when) this happens again?
“An ace up our sleeves.”
Web encryption is very much a cat and mouse game: the encryptors develop some new technique to evade blocks, the censors respond and refine their techniques to counter the encryptors, and the encryptors implement a new new technique. Round and round, each side tries to keep a step ahead of the other in a game that never ends but always escalates.
The Tor Project eludes the censors by wrapping an individual’s web activities in layers of benign activity, routing traffic through a global volunteer network of what they call “bridges.” Tor’s encryption is considered among the best available, but last week, Iran figured out how to block it. Within a day, Tor fired back.
“We’ve long had an ace up our sleeves for this exact moment in the arms race but it’s perhaps come while the User Interface edges are a bit rough still,” they posted on their blog. It’s complicated, and still somewhat obscure – perhaps the reason why Tor called this new workaround “Obfsproxy”, short for for “Obscured Bridge Proxy.”
Although still in rough testing, Tor says its new obfsproxy bridge is currently undetectable by Iranian censors. Data seems to bear that out; while large chucks of the Internet remain blocked in Iran, users there are once again able to reach the outside world via Tor. For the time being.
Of course, Tehran’s cyber-censors will respond, probably very soon. But Tor is just one of many privacy and encryption solutions, and each of them will keep Iranian censors busy with new upgrades and techniques. They key, say encryption coders, is keeping as many Internet bridges outside the target country open as long as possible.
With the approaching elections and rising tensions in the Persian Gulf, it’s a sure bet Iranian authorities won’t be relaxing their Internet censorship anytime soon. However, points out the IBB’s Ken Burman, there are limits to what they can do. Shutting down the Internet – as Egypt learned – is not a long-term option, says Berman:
“The Iranian public will not tolerate it, when it affects banking connection, a member of Parliament’s personal communications, and the business community. It is really a balancing game whereby the regime continues to experiment with how much filtering they can introduce before the elite personally are affected and protest. As stated, during recent https shut down even some of the members of the parliament voiced concern.”
At least for now, the Iranian regime has decided not to burn down the bridges to the rest of the Internet. How much traffic is allowed to cross is another matter altogether.
*Full disclosure: VOA and Freegate have worked together in the past, and continue to do so, on a variety of anti-censorship privacy and encryption tools.