The following report is being presented in an incomplete, text-only format without images, graphs, or visual aids. The complete version is unavailable at this time.
UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY
Iran — War of Attrition Between Regime, Netizens Over Information Flows
Open Source Center Analysis 13 July 2010
For almost a decade, the Iranian regime and netizen activists have been engaged in a veritable war of attrition over freedom of information on the Internet. With at least tacit support from information technology businesses — whose interests are adversely affected by government controls and restrictions — activists have sought to exploit the Internet in order to share information and voice dissent. In turn, the authorities have been implementing plans to manage cyber activity by taking ownership of Internet infrastructure and by promoting the presence of their supporters and messages in cyberspace, while justifying their efforts on the grounds of morality and national security. Neither netizen activists nor the government are likely to win the battle over information flows in the near term, in part because of financial considerations and evolving technologies.
Activists in Ongoing Struggle for Freedom of Information on Internet
Although the role of new and social media in publicizing the unrest following the 2009 Iranian presidential election highlighted Internet freedom issues, Iranian netizens’ struggles to gain and protect Internet freedom have been the crux of a nearly decade-long cyberwar with the regime.
- As documented by OSC, political, human rights, and other activists have sought new communications avenues to voice dissent and share information, in an effort to thwart the regime’s censorship efforts. Activists have expanded their use of the Internet through the following methods: publishing e-zines, forums, and blogs; utilizing online communities; using photo- and video-sharing sites; and, most recently, using social bookmarking and microblogs. Netizens have used these technologies to form mutually supportive clusters centered around group blogs and social networking and bookmarking sites — where they mirror, repost, and share content, as well as provide guidance and issue alerts.
- Some activists have expended significant effort in support of Internet freedom by providing technical guidance regarding the use of proxies and other anti- filtering tools and methods, and by publicizing news of website closures and the arrests of activists.
Examples of self-formed netizen groups aligned in support of Internet freedom are PenLog — a grassroots bloggers’ association which publicized arrests and promulgated journalistic standards via blogs and social networking sites from 2005 until about 2009   — and no-filter.com, a virtual society of experts that continues to provide in-depth technical guidance, such as its August 2006 68-page document entitled “The Comprehensive Guide to Bypassing Internet Censorship.” 
- Technical guidance has also been provided by netizens within Iran and in the diaspora, such as blogger “Hasan Agha” in Norway, who was among the first targets of the Iranian regime’s filtering in 2003-2004. Since that time, “Hasan Agha” has continued to provide proxies and guidance. 
Netizens have mobilized to write petitions and even hack government websites when Internet freedom has been threatened.
- In response to a 1 January 2007 government directive that all website owners register at Samandehi.ir, netizens protested by refusing to register 5 (freekeyboard.net, 2 January 2007) and by hacking the site multiple times (iranictnews.ir, 27 September 2008).  One blogger claimed that the protests — as well as the regulation’s impracticality — led to a swift change in the directive so that it did not apply to blogs that did not have their own domains. 
- In 2004, over 200 bloggers and Internet users protested a proposed draft of the Computer Crimes Law — which was not ratified until 2009 — by signing a petition posted on www.cyber-freedom.com (now inactive) created specifically for this purpose (iritn.com, 21 June 2004). 
Companies Align With Netizens To Support More Robust Internet Access
While complying with government regulations by implementing filters, some information technology (IT) companies and other interested business groups have supported certain aspects of Internet freedom, because of the impact on business.
- According to a June 2009 trade journal review, the Iranian Government’s limitation of bandwidth to 128kb (itna.ir, 17 June 2008)  — which the authors say was “rumored” to be aimed at preventing downloads of undesirable content in Iran — hurt both home users and businesses. Home users “became fed up,” Internet providers received a “mortal blow,” and for companies in general, the result was to “waste the time of personnel, increase the cost of electrical power, wear out the computers, and ultimately make them unsuccessful in their work.” The authors assessed that the impact was so negative that “eliminating the restriction on Internet speed became a candidate election promise” during the June 2009 presidential campaign (The Analysts of the Information Age Journal). 
- When without prior notice Zirsakht Communications Company — owned by the Ministry of Communications and the sole provider of broadband in the country — activated a system of firewalls on broadband, the National Computer Trade Organization’s (NCTO) public relations office reported numerous disruptions in Internet access, “widespread protest,” and “waste of user time.” NCTO strongly criticized the disruption, which it said would cause “severe financial losses to the IT industry,” and — stating that the industry already complies with government criteria to filter content — counseled that “it is advisable that more attention be paid to qualitative and quantitative stability of IT and communication services” (itna.ir, 18 April 2009).
Ministry of Communications and the sole provider of broadband in the country — activated a system of firewalls on broadband, the National Computer Trade Organization’s (NCTO) public relations office reported numerous disruptions in Internet access, “widespread protest,” and “waste of user time.” NCTO strongly criticized the disruption, which it said would cause “severe financial losses to the IT industry,” and — stating that the industry already complies with government criteria to filter content — counseled that “it is advisable that more attention be paid to qualitative and quantitative stability of IT and communication services” (itna.ir, 18 April 2009). 
Regime Measures To Block and Direct Information Sharing
The regime’s efforts to control Internet usage — initially implemented in 2001-2002 when Iranian Internet usage rapidly increased and the first Persian blog appeared — have in recent years involved an increasingly multifaceted approach that involves the Islamic tenets of preventing vice and promoting virtue. Methods to block information on the Internet and constrain users’ activity have included technical means, legislation, and arrests. Regime spokesmen have justified these actions through a campaign against “heresy and profanity” and, more recently, with calls to counter foreign-instigated “soft war.”
Internet Control Part of Regime’s Long-Standing Media Control
The Iranian regime’s measures to limit Internet freedom are part of its broader approach to control and manage information-sharing, including:
- Closing newspapers 
- Jamming foreign satellite broadcasts while supporting pro-regime press 
- Shutting down SMS and e-mail services during times of unrest, as occurred in June 2009 and exerting control over domestic programming (government-owned IRIB) 
- The regime’s use of technical measures has broadened from simple filtering of websites to filtering that also provides links to what are termed “useful” sites, and to obtaining ownership of the country’s sole broadband provider.
- While arrests of netizen activists continue, the 2009 Computer Crimes Law provides a more legitimate basis for government Internet controls than previous regulations passed in 2004 by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, which has no legislative authority.
- While some official entities have recognized the value of the Internet, such as for conducting commerce, the government has continued its plans — launched in 2006 — to take ownership of ISPs. Moreover, pro-regime bloggers and hackers have expanded
their presence and content in cyberspace.
- The regime has been implementing increasingly sophisticated directing of web traffic within Iran. While Internet filtering previously only denied netizens access to websites, more recent filtering mechanisms provide links to sites that the regime considers “useful,” (kalame.com, 29 March 2010). In some cases, as reported on popular social bookmarking site balatarin.com, the filtering mechanisms have automatically redirected would-be visitors to The Prophet’s Green Movement, a pro-regime site. 
- Broadening the rhetoric in support of information control, the supreme leader and many other regime officials, both military and non-military now justify information control as a way to counter foreign-instigated “soft war,” rhetorically connecting the issue with national security. Earlier, officials such as Tehran Prosecutor General Mortazevi had linked information controls to upholding morality — citing anti-“heresy” and “profanity” campaigns (Fars News, 10 December 2008).
Outlook: Neither Side To Gain Upper Hand in Near Term
Neither the Iranian Government nor the activists are likely to achieve a decisive victory in the near term, owing in part to financial considerations and evolving technologies.
- Cyber wars have continued for nearly a decade as evolving technologies have enabled activists’ gains to be countered by government actions every time, and vice versa — a trend likely to persist.
- Otherwise non-political or non-ideological actors — such as IT companies — are supporting ready access to broadband, providing additional financial and technical weight to netizen activists who fight censorship.
- The Iranian Government has been seeking to own the domestic IT environment — as it does the mobile phone/SMS environment — and to the extent it succeeds it may gain the upper hand. Government ownership currently provides a “nuclear option” in the case of cell phones — the ability to shut down the entire SMS system. However, advances in technology that allow more targeted and seamless blockage as well as the redirection of information flows may provide the government with more options in the future.
1 [Internet Site | | PenLog Newsletter Blog | | http://penlog.blogspot.com | 21 March 2009 | PenLog Newsletter Blog in Persian ]
2 [Internet Site | | PenLog English Blog | | http://penlog-en.blogspot.com | 16 February 2008 | PenLog English Blog in English ]
3 [Internet Site | | no-filter.com | | The Comprehensive Guide to Bypassing Internet Censorship | http://www.no-filter.com | August 2006 | no-filter.com in Persian ]
4 [Internet Site | | Hasan Agha Blog | | http://blog.hasanagha.org/howto, http://home.c2i net/hasanagha/proxy | | Hasan Agha Blog in Persian ]
5 [Internet Site | | freekeyboard.net | | http://freekeyboard.net/spip.php?page=print&id_article=210 | | freekeyboard net in Persian ]
6 [Internet Site | | iranictnews.ir | | http://iranictnews.ir/related/78489/R_84126_____ﺪﺷ-ﮏﻫ-ﺮﮕﻳﺩ-ﺭﺎﺑ-ﯽﻫﺪﻧﺎﻣﺎﺳ.htm | 27 September 2008 | iranictnews.ir in Persian ]
7 [Internet Site | | Koohnevesht Blog | | http http://koohnevesht.blogfa.com/8510.aspx | 6 January 2007 | Koohnevesht Blog in Persian, by Hosein Reza’i ]
8 [Internet Site | | iritn.com | | http://www.iritn.com | 21 June 2004 | iritn.com in Persian ]
9 [Internet Site | | itna.ir | | http://www.itna.ir | 17 June 2008 | itna.ir in Persian ]
10 [OSC | IAP20100507656003 | The Analysts of the Information Age Journal | Main IT projects in the 9th government Assessment: From promise to delivery | http://www.infoage.ir | June 2009 | The Analysts of the Information Age Journal — bimonthly IT trade journal in Persian; URL: www.infoage.ir]
11 [Internet Site | | itna.ir | | http://www.itna.ir | 18 April 2009 | itna.ir in Persian ]
12 [OSC | IAP20100531950121 | | 31 May 2010 | | Iran Bans Two Papers, Gives Notice to 14 | | (U) | (U) | Tabnak in Persian — a conservative website associated with Expediency Council Secretary and former IRGC commander Major General Mohsen Reza’i; www.tabnak.ir]
13 [OSC | AFP20100514950027 | | 14 May 2010 | | Call for Europe to outwit Iran’s cyber censors | | (U) | (U) | Excerpt from report by Belgium-based European Voice]
14 [OSC | IAP20090613950173 | | 13 June 2009 | | Iran: Mobile Phone Service Suspended in Tehran | | (U) | (U) | Aftab News Online in Persian ]
15 [Internet Site | | kalame.com | | http://www kalame.com | 29 March 2010 | kalame.com in Persian — Pro-Musavi website ]
16 [Internet Site | | kalame.com | | http://www kalame.com | 29 March 2010 | kalame.com in Persian — Pro-Musavi website ]