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Iran stocks up on censorship tools

Iran joins China in a club of countries developing filters for internet traffic.

Iranian schoolgirls chat online at an internet cafe which is exclusively for females, near the city of Karaj, 60km (38 miles) west of Tehran, May 24, 2007. (Reuters)

When Iranian protesters used internet services like Twitter to gain global attention they also reminded the world that oppressive regimes continue to buy or build technologies to enforce censorship.

Clothilde Le Coz, director of internet research for Reporters Without Borders, says Iran is second only to China in the extent and sophistication of its efforts to stifle dissent online.  

“The Iranian government said last year that it was blocking 5 million websites,” Le Coz said in a telephone interview. “They brag about what they can do, perhaps to intimidate their opponents.”

The complicity of Western companies in Iranian censorship was brought into focus when  the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran's ability to monitor online protests “was provided at least in part” by Nokia Siemens Networks, a jointly owned subsidiary of the two European tech firms.

Hoping to limit the damage to its reputation, the European telecommunications firm issued a statement explaining that it had only provided Iran the ability to tap wireless phone calls — a function called “lawful intercept” that it is also legally required to sell as a crime-fighting tool in Europe and the United States.

“Nokia Siemens Networks has not provided any deep packet inspection, web censorship or internet filtering capability to Iran,” the company said.

Iran, already subject to a U.S.-imposed trade embargo, apparently considers internet censorship so critical that it has developed its own web monitoring tools.

“Iran now employs domestically produced technology for identifying and blocking objectionable websites, reducing its reliance on Western filtering technologies,” according to a recent report from the Open Net Initiative, an academic consortium that tracks internet censorship.

The report added: “With the emergence of this domestic technical capacity, Iran joins China as the only countries that aggressively filter the internet using their own technology.”

The fact that so much material leaked out over the internet despite Iran's efforts to squelch the flow shows the difficulties of censoring a medium that evolves so quickly, said Nart Villeneuve, a research fellow at the University of Toronto's Munk Center for International Studies, which is part of the Open Net Initiative.