[CJ Hinke of FACT comments: True confession—I, too own a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook. Perhaps it should be translated into Thai so it can be banned here.]

UK Government Crowd-Sourcing Censorship

UK government enlists public to spot terror Web sites

Web sites will be taken down if their intent is to provide information to terrorists

Jeremy Kirk

IDG News Service: February 3, 2010


The U.K. public can report terrorism-related Web sites to authorities for removal from the Internet under a new program launched by the British government.

The program is a way in which the government is seeking to enforce the Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2006, which make it illegal to have or share information that’s intended to be useful to terrorists and bans glorifying terrorism or urging people to commit terrorism.

People can report Web sites on Direct.co.uk by filling out a Web-based form. The form includes categories to describe what’s on the Web site, such as “terrorist training material” or “hate crimes.”

Content deemed illegal by the U.K. includes videos of beheadings, messages that encourage racial or terrorist violence and chat forums revolving around hate crimes, according to information on Direct.co.uk.

The reports are anonymous and are then reviewed by police officers who are part of the new Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit, run by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). A Home Office spokeswoman said that unit would be responsible for determining the intent of the content posted, which would determine whether it is in fact illegal.

But it begs the question of how, for example, chemistry textbooks published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — which have information on poison and explosives — could be viewed, said Wendy M. Grossman, a member of the Open Rights Group advisory council and a freelance technology writer.

“I suppose the key is ‘intended to be useful to terrorists,’ and what they’re trying to get at is networks of terrorists who educate each other and their recruits,” Grossman said. “Bottom line is I don’t believe this effort is going to make us any safer, though it may well turn up a few idiots who get prosecuted for, basically, saying stupid things.”

Police should review submitted sites fairly quickly, said an ACPO spokeswoman. If the Web site is hosted in the U.K., police would ask the hosting provider to take the site offline. If a site is hosted overseas, then police would engage private industry and other law enforcement agencies, she said.

The reporting Web site is a sensible idea, but it’s unlikely that many people will know it even exists if they come across the type of material the government aims to stop, said Struan Robertson, a technology lawyer at Pinsent Masons.

“I don’t think the police anticipate a huge number of submissions,” Robertson said.

In October 2007, British police arrested a 17-year-old for possessing a copy of the “The Anarchist Cookbook,” a 1970s-era book featuring instructions on homemade bomb-making and other destructive tips.

Last month, a 38-year-old man pleaded not guilty to 12 terrorism-related charges, including four counts of owning information useful to terrorism, according to a BBC news story. One of the counts was for possessing “The Anarchist Cookbook,” which is still sold today on Amazon.co.uk.


A Conspiracy Theory About a Secret Police Force Has Ignited a Firestorm of Right-Wing Paranoia

An obscure executive order has been misconstrued and now the blowback has reached all the way to Congress.

Stephanie Mencimer

Mother Jones: February 9, 2010


Does Obama want to impose martial law to shut down the Tea Party movement?

For months, much of the right-wing blogosphere has been fuming about Executive Order 12425, which Obama amended in mid-December. The one-paragraph document grants Interpol, the international law enforcement agency based in France, special privileges within the United States—mainly immunity from the Freedom of Information Act and from lawsuits over activity considered part of its official duties. It’s no secret police conspiracy.

But thanks to Glenn Beck, the National Review, Newt Gingrich, and others, this obscure directive has fueled a firestorm of right-wing paranoia. Conservative activists warn that Obama intends to use Interpol as a “secret police” with the power to knock down doors and arrest law-abiding American citizens. No matter that Interpol agents don’t even carry guns and have no right to arrest people, or that its American office boasts all of five people. And the hysteria over the executive order is not confined to the Tea Party movement. It has also reached the highest levels of politics—that is, the US Congress.

In January, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) introduced a resolution that would require a repeal of the order. “As a former FBI agent, I believe that giving INTERPOL blanket exemptions is dangerous,” Rogers explained in a statement. “This change ties the hands of American law enforcement and prevents full access to information that could be crucial for on-going U.S. investigations related to criminal or national security activity. This is no time to be weakening the ability of law enforcement to defend our nation.”

The online backlash to executive order 12425 became so intense that Ron Noble, Interpol’s secretary-general, wrote a piece for Newsweek’s website debunking the conspiracy theory. “An executive order cannot legally authorize an unconstitutional act, and this one doesn’t even come close,” he wrote.

But Noble’s appeal for reason isn’t likely to quiet the storm. That’s because the Obama executive order feeds a thriving narrative on the right about the current administration’s nefarious intentions. Ever since Obama took office, certain corners of the Internet have been frothing with speculation that Obama fancies himself a Mobutu-style African dictator who is furtively plotting to use martial law to crush dissent or unrest over his economic policies.

Nutty as this premise sounds, it’s proven particularly popular among those who believe that Obama is not an American citizen or who are bitterly opposed to health care reform. The drumbeat has been so loud that a host of state legislators have introduced “state sovereignty” bills declaring their independence from the federal government under the 10th Amendment and threatening to secede in the event that martial law is declared; Sarah Palin even signed one such bill before quitting as governor of Alaska. (A favorite of states’ rights proponents, the one-sentence 10th Amendment basically says that any power that isn’t specifically granted to the federal government by the Constitution is reserved for the states.)

Other “evidence” that Obama has despotic designs: A Rand Corporation report released in April 2009, titled “A Stability Police Force for the United States.” The think-tank study, commissioned by the US Army, weighs the possibility of creating a new national civilian police force that could be used to help stabilize foreign countries in conflict or after disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti. But because such a force would be insufficiently busy abroad, the authors also suggested that it might be used at home—for instance, to help respond to natural disasters.

The study has become Exhibit A for those who think Obama wants a domestic secret police to silence his political enemies, particularly those in the Tea Party movement. The conservative blogger YidwithLid wrote of the “brown shirt” report, “I wonder what kind of Domestic Role the Stability Police can have, controlling Tea Parties? ‘Fixing’ Fox News? A national police under the control of this or any president will do nothing less than signal the end of freedom in the United States. Any movement toward this force must be voted down.” Of course, it didn’t help that the Department of Homeland Security produced a 2009 report warning about the rising threat of right-wing extremism—convincing many conservative activists that they are being targeted by the federal government.

When I asked Rand spokesman Warren Robak about the study, he said jokingly, “Oh, you mean the Gestapo report?” The wonks at Rand were startled when their staid policy analysis became a rallying cry for anti-Obama and right-wing activists. Robak points out that the report was actually commissioned in 2007, during the Bush administration. He also explains that the military had been questioning its ability to shoulder nation-building responsibilities and thought it might be a job better performed by civilians. (After the post-invasion debacle in Iraq, it’s not hard to see why police trained in dealing with civilians might be a good idea.)

None of this is likely to quiet Obama’s critics—especially as many already believe that he is plotting to hold citizens in “FEMA-run concentration camps.” Activists believe these were established under the Bush administration to hold US citizens should martial law be declared following an emergency like Hurricane Katrina. Their suspicions swelled when Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) introduced a bill in January 2009 called the National Emergency Centers Establishment Act that would direct the secretary of homeland security to establish national emergency centers on military installations to be used in the event of such disasters.

By “disasters,” Hastings was presumably referring to events such as the hurricanes that regularly buffet his home state. But conservative activists believe the bill would empower the president to detain pretty much anyone he wants at the centers. And when Obama designated the H1N1 flu outbreak a national emergency last fall, right-wingers seized on this as further evidence of a sinister government plot. Conservative bloggers warned darkly that anyone who refused to submit to the flu vaccine might be held in one of the government-run emergency facilities.

Leonard Zeskind, author of Blood and Politics, a history of the white nationalist movement, says that the Tea Partiers’ conspiracy theories aren’t new. Similarly hysterical warnings of government overreach were rife during the Clinton or Carter administrations. “In the militia days in the 1990s it was about a UN invasion. It’s exactly the same phenomenon. Some of the same people are involved,” he says.

But these extreme conspiracy theories aren’t just confined to the radical fringe. They’re being adopted by national politicians, as Rep. Rogers proved with his attempt to roll back Obama’s Interpol order. Back in the 1990s, says Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino, “The black helicopter stuff was pretty well segregated from the mainstream world. But now you have Sarah Palin entertaining the Obama [born in] Kenya thing or [Gov.] Rick Perry from Texas toying with the secession idea.” It’s yet another sign of how much the Tea Party and the Republican Party are increasingly one and the same.

Computer savvy activists launch attacks to punch holes in online shields of authoritative regimes

John Boudreau

San Jose Mercury News: February 14, 2010


It is the Internet version of David vs. Goliath — computer savvy activists who launch guerrilla tech attacks to punch holes in online shields erected by governments to control what their citizens do online.

One of the newest cyber warriors is Austin Heap, a 25-year-old San Francisco software developer who helped launch Haystack, a program to help Iranians wiggle past government filters as tensions between authorities and the opposition movement surge.

“It’s an arms race,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on Chinese censorship who is familiar with efforts to open up the Internet in Iran as well as other authoritarian countries. “There is no precedence for this.”

Heap is not alone. He’s one of a growing number of online activists building software tools designed to serve as virtual slingshots to take on government censorship. Experts in the field, though, caution that programs devised to assist dissidents and others trying to allude authorities online are not fail-proof in the never-ending battle of wits and technology between authoritarian regimes and savvy geeks.

“There is no silver bullet,” said Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Anyone who purports otherwise, he added, risks sounding naive.

The tension between online free speech and government crackdowns hit the headlines again last week. During the 31st anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the government

reportedly shut down phone and Internet services, though videos of protesters still made their way onto YouTube. The Iranian government also said it was shutting down Google’s Gmail service and would roll out its own e-mail service.

Heap’s call to action, though, came last summer after the disputed Iranian presidential election triggered mass protests.

Heap, who was working for a San Francisco non-profit at the time, joined netizens around the country working to help Iranians report on what was happening on the ground through the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook. He posted online instructions on how to use “proxy servers” — such as routing an Internet request through another computer to access a blocked Web site. “Thousands and thousands of people around the world turned their computers at home into proxy servers for people in Iran,” Heap recalled.

“Somebody had to make a more sustainable and scalable method of getting around the Iranian censorship,” he said. “These proxy servers weren’t going to cut it. We couldn’t do this on a massive scale.”

By August, Heap and others eventually launched a nonprofit to support their work of making and maintaining the Haystack program aimed specifically at Iranians trying to maneuver around the authorities online. The co-founder and executive director of the group sees his mission as providing a basic human right — unfettered freedom of expression online.

“We never wake up in the morning and wonder if our cell phones will work, what will happen when I load Gmail, whether or not I can send a text message,” he said. “I do not have a lot of respect for an organization that is trying to control people violently and telling them what they can and can’t do online.”

His desire to provide the help others have unimpeded access to the Internet is deeply personal.

The Internet expanded his world as a teen growing up in Ohio, where he lived in a small town in which students could get “time off to show off a pig at the county fair.”

“That was not my thing,” Heap said. “The Internet was a way for me to connect to smart people. It was my way to connect with the world.”

He moved to San Francisco about two years ago and joined the ranks of those devoted to liberating the Internet from authoritarian interference full-time some seven months ago. He quickly garnered the attention of others engaged in the cause.

“Austin happened to find himself at the center of a human network and became a clearinghouse of information about what was going on (in Iran) and information about how to get information,” Zittrain said. “For people who come forward and find themselves in the eye of a hurricane — there is no other feeling like it: ‘Wow, I made a difference.’ And that, of course, is what we all want to say.”

Haystack, Heap said, works on two levels. It encrypts online communication and then cloaks it to appear like normal Web traffic.

Jacob Appelbaum, a San Francisco programmer with the long-time open source Tor Project, a cloaking program used by corporations and free speech activists alike, said closed systems like Haystack concern him. He said it has no peer review the way the Tor Project does, which has been created and vetted by programmers around the world over many years.

“He has not opened it up for research,” Appelbaum said. “No one has seen a copy of his specifications. There is no way we can understand if the claims that are made (by Haystack) are true.”

At worst, a faulty program could put its users in Iran at risk, he said. “That very much concerns me,” Appelbaum added. “When people’s lives are at risk, it’s not a good idea to be arrogant.”

But Heap countered that worries about Haystack are part of the larger debate between those who advocate open-source development as a way to pick the brains of a worldwide community and others who embrace a private source code for faster development and security.

But many experts say this ever-changing chess game — a deadly one, at that — requires many different tools to combat increasing sophistication of governments determined to clamp down on what citizens can access and not online.

“These tools are essential,” MacKinnon said. “It’s very good that more and more groups are working on these tools.”

In fact, it can be perilous to rely on a small, though trusted, technology.

“It wouldn’t be good if people had to depend on just one or two tools,” MacKinnon said. “What if something happens to the developers? What if it goes down or a government figures out a way to block it or disable it? It’s important to have alternatives.”

For those on the front lines, another cyber weapon is more than welcome.

Haystack is a “great tool,” said Mana Mostatabi, online community manager for United 4 Iran, an organization that promotes human rights in the Persian country. However, she added that her group will “wait and see how it develops.”

The online free-speech movement is relatively young, she added. The more tools available for activists, the better, Mostatabi said.

“It’s not that one is right and one is wrong,” she said. “You are going to see more and more of these.”

Contact John Boudreau at 408-278-3496. jboudreau@mercurynews.com

Iran’s resistance keeps up cat-and-mouse Web game

Reza Derakhshi

Reuters: February 9, 2010


With their paths through the Internet increasingly blocked by government filters, Nooshin and her fellow Iranian opposition-supporters say their information on planned protests now comes in emails.

They say they don’t know who sends them.

Internet messages have been circulating about possible rallies on February 11, when Iran marks the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution. But the climate in the Islamic Republic is much harder than before last year’s post-election protests.

Last June, social media sites were hailed in the West as promising opposition supporters an anonymous rallying ground — especially when they were accessed via proxy servers that could mask participants’ actions and whereabouts.

For determined Iranians now, they are a high-risk tactic in a strategic game with the authorities, amid reports of mounting Internet disruption. Almost 32 percent of Iranians use the Internet and nearly 59 percent have a cellphone subscription, according to 2008 estimates from the International Telecommunications Union.

Since the disputed presidential poll that plunged Iran into its deepest internal turmoil since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the authorities have slowed Internet speeds and shut down opposition websites.

They also boast of an ability to track online action even from behind the proxies.

“This one is also blocked,” sighed Nooshin, a student, as she surfed the Web in a cafe in downtown Tehran. “This is more Filternet than Internet.”

Speaking in a low voice and wearing a blue Islamic headscarf, the 22-year-old declined to use her real name due to the sensitivity of opposition activism in Iran.


The presidential vote was followed by huge protests led by opposition supporters who say the poll was rigged to secure hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election. The authorities deny that charge.

When their newspapers were shut down after the vote, defeated presidential candidates Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi launched their own websites. The authorities later blocked them, forcing the opposition to set up new ones.

Much of this action and protest was publicized and tracked on the Internet, especially through micro-blogging site Twitter.

However, concerns are now mounting in Iran that the authorities may be able to track down people who use proxies.

“People are afraid of being identified and are not willing to use them any longer,” said Hamid, a shopkeeper in Markaz-e Computre, a popular computer shopping center in north Tehran, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Which is not to say that opposition efforts to plan and publicize their actions have been thwarted.

Afshin, a Web developer who supports the opposition, said the authorities would not succeed: “Whatever the government blocks in the Web, the people find another way,” he said.

“It is a cat-and-mouse game which the government cannot win.”


Arrayed against the Web activists are the fact that Iran’s government is equipped with latest monitoring technology, which enables it to detect computers making a secure connection, said Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer for Helsinki-based F-Secure Corporation.

Some proxy servers use Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) to secure the connection with a remote server. This security layer helps ensure that no other computers can read the traffic exchanged.

When people make these SSL connections — the same type used in the West for Internet shopping — the authorities cannot see the content of material accessed. But they could physically raid sites to check on the computers involved.

National police chief Esmail Ahmadi-Moghaddam in January warned Iran’s opposition against using text messages and emails to organize fresh street rallies.

“These people should know where they are sending the SMS and email as these systems are under control. They should not think using proxies will prevent their identification,” he said.

“If they continue … those who organize or issue appeals (about opposition protests) have committed a crime worse than those who take to the streets,” Ahmadi-Moghaddam added.

Thousands of people were arrested during widespread street unrest after the election. Most have since been freed, but more than 80 people have received jail terms of up to 15 years, including several senior opposition figures.

On January 28, Iranian media said two men sentenced to death in trials that followed the election had been executed. Tension in Iran rose after eight people were killed in clashes with security forces in December, including Mousavi’s nephew.

“The security services can turn technology against the logistics of protest,” Evgeny Morozov, a commentator on the political implications of the Internet, wrote in the November edition of Prospect magazine, citing experiences in Belarus and elsewhere.


But the authorities are facing determined resistance.

Journalists inside Iran have been banned from attending opposition demonstrations, but that has not kept footage of anti-government gatherings from reaching the Internet.

“It is extremely important for me to check my email messages in order to be informed about the latest developments in the absence of independent free media in the country,” said Nooshin, her computer screen repeatedly flashing up the same message in Farsi: “Access to this page is prohibited by the law.”

A young customer in the computer shopping center in Tehran said: “It is very important to be unidentified while surfing the Internet these days … currently the most secure way for us is to have a secure email account.”

Hypponen said Iran’s international isolation — especially its tense relationship with the United States — is likely to hamper its ability to catch Web activists.

“It’s easier for an activist from Iran to hide than for a Web criminal,” he said. “When chasing criminals, countries help each other.”


The United States is also a factor. It cut ties with Iran shortly after its revolution toppled the U.S.-backed Shah, and Tehran and Washington are now at odds over Iran’s disputed nuclear work.

Iran has accused the West of waging a “soft” war with the help of opposition and intellectuals inside the country, and officials have portrayed the post-election protests as a foreign-backed bid to undermine the clerical establishment.

In January, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton challenged Beijing and other governments to end Internet censorship, placing China in the company of Iran, Saudi Arabia and others as leading suppressors of online freedom.

She said “electronic barriers” to parts of the Internet or filtered search engine results contravened the U.N.’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of information.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hit back, accusing the United States of trying to use the Internet as a tool to confront the Islamic Republic.

“The Americans have said that they have allocated a $45 million budget to help them to confront the Islamic Republic of Iran via the Internet,” he said in a January 26 speech.

The U.S. Senate voted in July to adopt the Victims of Iranian Censorship Act, which authorises up to $50 million for expanding Farsi language broadcasts, supporting Iranian Internet and countering government efforts to block it.

(Additional reporting by Tarmo Virki; Editing by Sara Ledwith)

Iran denies western reporters visas to cover revolution anniversary

Handful of foreign correspondents still in Iran ordered not to report opposition protests

Ian Black

The Guardian: February 11, 2010


Iran has done all it can to limit coverage of celebrations of this year’s anniversary of the Islamic revolution, using lessons learned over the past eight months of sporadic protests since the disputed ­presidential election. Western journalists, including from the Guardian, have largely been denied visas to enter the country. The internet and phones have been interfered with.

The few foreign correspondents resident in Tehran operate under severe restrictions. Iranian officials claim that more than 200 foreign media were “cleared” to cover the anniversary, but minders from the ministry of Islamic guidance escorted selected journalists to today’s main official rally at Tehran’s Azadi square and warned them not to report opposition protests.

Exiled Iranian journalists had urged their foreign colleagues not to go, to avoid presenting “a caricature of the Iranian nation for your television cameras”.

Sixty-five Iranian journalists are in detention, according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. Iran has become the leading jailer of journalists in the world, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today in its annual review of global press freedoms.

Iran’s official media does not offer a wide angle on the story. Gisoo Ahmadi, correspondent for English-language Press TV, made no mention of opposition protests but described her excitement at covering the revolution’s anniversary for the third time. “Every year I tell you that it’s very glamorous, it’s very exciting, it’s very impressive, the turnout of the people, and every year I think that, oh, it can’t be any better, and you know surprisingly, the next year I see that there’s even more happening,” she said.

Opposition websites are probably the best source of news about Iran and there is regular praise for the BBC Persian TV satellite channel, which depends largely on information sent in by viewers.

“The international media has done well with live blogs and so on considering the difficulties,” said Massoumeh Torfeh, an Iranian academic at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. “The general picture is pretty accurate.”

Not surprisingly, Iran disagrees. Last November, during ceremonies marking the takeover of the US embassy in 1979, the official Islamic Republic News Agency accused TV stations such as al-Jazeera, CNN and France 24 of “seeking to create widespread unrest … by broadcasting phony stories and images” instead of reporting on the “epic public turnout” for pro-government rallies.

“The government cracked down on all forms of transmission of information, on bloggers, on journalists, on anybody that was transmitting any kind of information about the election,” said Anthony Mills of the IPI. “It’s an example of a government seeking to stifle dissent, by stifling independent reporting, by trying to make sure that no news, written or visual, comes out about events that are having an enormous impact on the country.”

Iran suspends Gmail-WSJ

February 15, 2010

Iran to Suspend Google’s Email

Christopher Rhoads, Chip Cummins and Jessica E Vascellaro

Wall Street Journal: February 10, 2010


Iran’s telecommunications agency announced what it described as a permanent suspension of Google Inc.’s email services, saying a national email service for Iranian citizens would soon be rolled out.

It wasn’t clear late Wednesday what effect the order had on Gmail services in Iran, or even if Iran had implemented its new policy. Iranian officials have claimed technological advances in the past that they haven’t been able to execute.

A Google spokesman said in a statement, “We have heard from users in Iran that they are having trouble accessing Gmail. We can confirm a sharp drop in traffic, and we have looked at our own networks and found that they are working properly. Whenever we encounter blocks in our services we try to resolve them as quickly as possibly because we strongly believe that people everywhere should have the ability to communicate freely online.”

An Iranian official said the move was meant to boost local development of Internet technology and to build trust between people and the government.

The measure was announced on the eve of the culmination of celebrations to mark the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Republic. Competing plans for pro-government and antigovernment demonstrations have set the stage for clashes between authorities and opposition protesters, who have taken to the streets repeatedly since contested presidential elections in June.

The move marks another effort by the regime to close the gap with its opposition in controlling Iranian cyberspace, according to Internet security experts. The government has a tight grip over old media—television, radio and newspapers—but learned during the unrest following the contested election last June that the opposition and its supporters dominated new media, including social networking Web sites like Twitter and Facebook.

“The primary purpose for doing this is to control communication and mine that communication, so the government can crack down on dissenters and people who threaten the government,” said Richard Stiennon, founder of Internet security firm IT-Harvest, based in Birmingham, Mich.

“If the government can induce the population to use a state-controlled email service, it would have access to the content of all of those emails,” he added.

The Iranian regime has been intensifying a crackdown on supporters and leaders of Iran’s opposition. Part of the government’s efforts have involved tracking the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube activity of Iranians around the world, and identifying them at opposition protests abroad, say former Iranian lawmakers and former members of Iran’s elite security force.

Blocking an email service like Gmail is fairly simple, according to Mr. Stiennon, particularly in a place like Iran where the government controls the nation’s telecommunication infrastructure, and largely the service providers that depend on it. The regime, through its telecom arm, the Telecommunication Co. of Iran, could block the domain name address of Gmail, so that the country’s estimated 23 million Internet users would no longer be able to access it, he said.

Google could theoretically change the address of its email service in Iran, but ultimately if the government wants to block the service from its network it could do so, he said.

Nikahang Kowsar, an Iranian online activist in Toronto, said he experienced disruptions using Gmail Wednesday afternoon with friends in Iran. Usually, Gmail works without problems, he said. Gmail replaced Yahoo as the most popular email service in Iran in the past year because users believe it is the most secure, or the hardest for government censors to crack, he said.

Users in Iran on Wednesday also reported to Mr. Kowsar that all their Gmail contacts were shown on their computer screens as being “offline,” when that wasn’t the case, he added. “I was able to use the Google chat for about 10 minutes, but it was on and off,” said Mr. Kowsar.

“The government is doing this because it wants to control everything,” he added. “That is the only reason behind this.”

Other countries have taken similar steps as Iran, but usually not for a specific email service. China has blocked Twitter and Facebook, among a host of other sites and services. Pakistan, among other countries, tried to block its Internet users from accessing YouTube, Google’s online video site. That botched attempt disrupted YouTube access outside of Pakistan as well, and had the effect of diverting those trying to access the site in other countries to servers in Pakistan.

In Iran, the government and its supporters have tried for months to reign in the opposition’s effective use of the Internet to get news out to the rest of the world. Earlier last year, the Revolutionary Guard announced it was creating 10,000 bloggers to spread its views. The presence on social networking Web sites like Twitter of supporters of the regime grew during the crackdown on protest. Some regime supporters sent messages, or “tweets,” designed to disrupt opposition plans, or cloud the site with offensive messages and images.

Still, these efforts haven’t prevented a flood of online information about the protests from reaching the world. Opposition members and their supporters have honed their communication skills, taking advantage of video, still images and text messages posted on blogs and news Web sites to chronicle their latest antigovernment action.

Google’s Gmail is one of the most popular of the Western email services in Iran; it appeals to the country’s younger generation, which has formed the backbone of the opposition movement.

Iran’s announcement adds to Google’s mounting international woes. The fate of its China business is up in the air, after the company said it would stop censoring its search results in compliance with Chinese law, responding to a major cyber attack it suffered and said it traced to the country. Since Google announced the move last month, executives have said it has gotten more difficult to do business in China in recent years but that they are hopeful they can continue to have some operations in the country.

In the wake of Google’s recent tussle with China, the latest development intensifies the discussion about the company and free speech on the Internet, according to Jonathan Zittrain, a co-founder of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society.

“Through a series of circumstances, Google is now firmly enmeshed in a fundamental debate about Internet freedom,” said Mr. Zittrain. “I would be very interested to see if it cooks up ways to get to Gmail in cases where it is blocked.”

What makes the Iran government’s step unusual is that the move isn’t about censorship, but about surveillance, Mr. Zittrain added. By having the country’s email users on a government-issued email service, the government will have a window into communication that it couldn’t otherwise have.

Google’s announcement that it was working with the U.S. National Security Agency, or NSA, to help with its problems in China might have factored into Iran’s decision to no longer allow Gmail use in the country, said Mr. Stiennon. “Iran could view that as a significant risk to its security,” he said.

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday it couldn’t confirm whether Iran planned to suspend Google’s Gmail, but it said any efforts to keep information from Iranians would fail.

“While information technologies are enabling people around the world to communicate … like never before, the Iranian government seems determined to deny its citizens access to information, the ability to express themselves freely, network and share ideas,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.

Write to Chip Cummins at chip.cummins@wsj.com and Jessica E. Vascellaro at jessica.vascellaro@wsj.com

‘Shut Up’? Pakistan President’s Outburst Scrubbed From ‘Net

ABC News: February 7, 2010


ABC News’ Nicholas Schifrin reports from Islamabad, Pakistan:

When President Asif Ali Zardari says “Shut up,” he apparently means it.

A few weeks ago, a short video of Pakistan’s unpopular, democratically elected president began playing on endless loop on the dozen private channels here. In the clip, he is giving a speech in Urdu to a crowd that apparently wasn’t listening to him too closely (not uncommon in Pakistan). As he speaks, you can hear background chitchat from the inattentive audience. Well, he could hear that same chitchat too, so at one point he looked down at someone and yelled, in English, ”Shut Up!”

All the local television anchors had a good laugh featuring the video, as did those at home — some of whom created remixes of Zardari’s outburst (see HERE, HERE and HERE) and posted them to YouTube.

“Such behavior is embarrassing for any politician, but especially for the president of a country,” wrote Adil Najam of All Things Pakistan, a moderate blog that promises to “talk about [Pakistan’s] problems constructively.”

Which brings us to the evening of Sunday, Feb. 7. At about 9:30 p.m., according to the Pakistan Twitterverse, YouTube suddenly disappeared from Pakistani Internet Service Providers.

About an hour later, it seems that all was fixed — with one very blatant exception. The dozen or so YouTube videos featuring Zardari’s explosion in loop were still restricted. You could search for them, but you couldn’t watch them (see screen grab below).

Both the government and YouTube say they’re checking to see what’s going on.

I called my Internet Service Provider and one official said he was under the impression all had been fixed — and insisted nobody from his side was specifically restricting embarrassing videos of the democratically elected president.

“It must be some restriction from government side,” he said, confirming that the videos had been restricted. He laughed and joked, “Zardari might be blocking it himself!”

It’s important to note that as of right now, it’s not clear who restricted the videos (or at least, nobody’s owning up to it).

But Zardari’s government – the first democratic government in Pakistan in more than a decade — has taken steps in the past to restrict critical speech.

Last summer, the government passed a law threatening anyone who sends text messages or e-mails that “slander the political leadership of the country” with 14 years in prison.

(For some good Zardari jokes, click here, especially if you can understand Urdu.)

It’s not clear if anyone was actually charged under that statute (including the journalists who printed the SMSs)…

Judging by the instant reaction online — especially on Twitter — the government will be blamed for this, and it will not go down well. Tonight, one blogger critical of Zardari – Huma Imtiaz of “The World Has Stopped Spinning” — wrote, “This move comes just when one thinks the government of Pakistan cannot outdo themselves. What’s next, a ban on free speech?”

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