U.S. Helps Iranians Bypass Internet Block to Organize Protests

U.S. Helps Iranians Bypass Internet Block to Organize Protests

A U.S.-based project is helping Iranians skirt government Web restrictions, aiding protest efforts by allowing citizens to coordinate online.

The Tor project provides a system that lets people use the Internet anonymously. Now, in the face of Iran’s latest round of Internet blocks, the organization is developing a way to disguise encrypted connections as innocent, unencrypted ones.

Under the new method, when Internet users go to encrypted Internet sites, they actually reach “bridge” connections to the Tor network, which, in turn, give them access to sites blocked by the government. Tor is trying a new technology called “obfsproxy,” or obfuscated proxy, to allow users to reach encrypted sites under the radar of government watchdogs.

Iran is taking steps to block off Internet access, but the Tor project hopes to step into the breach and keep its citizens connected to the outside world.

As repressive regimes around the world increasingly restrict Internet access, citizens depend on outside countries and agencies to help them communicate with each other and the outside world away from the prying eyes of officials.

Last year, the U.S. State Department allocated $30 billion to fund services and technologies capable of bypassing government-imposed Internet restrictions, in a diplomatic move that recognized the Internet’s increasing role as a battlefield between censorship and citizens’ rights.

The Internet and social media access fueled several recent uprisings, including last year’s Arab Spring. Amnesty International cited the unencumbered flow of information on the Internet and mobile devices as vital to changing people’s lives and futures in African nations, where many Arab Spring uprisings took place.

For example, activists gained access to WikiLeaks documents on secret government activities in Tunisia, including torture of prisoners. The information citizens gained via the Internet helped spark the revolt against Tunisia’s president, Ben’Ali.

In its latest Internet censorship move, Iran’s government blocked access to encrypted Internet sites last week in an effort to head off protests reportedly planned for the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah.

The government’s attempts to stop dissidents from fundraising and disseminating information to further protest efforts also blocked Iranian citizens from accessing banking, search, Web-based email and social media sites.

The country’s Islamic regime is also in the process of completely cutting off Internet access and allowing access only to government-approved material that expresses Islamist views. The Iranian government also disguises its own identity online to try to catch citizens in dissident acts or protest planning.

In response, the Tor project is stepping up its efforts to maintain encrypted access to Iran’s citizens with its new cloaking technology.

It aims “to make your Ferrari look like a Toyota by putting an actual Toyota shell over the Ferrari,” Tor executive director Andrew Lewman told Forbes.

Between 50,000 and 60,000 people use Tor in Iran daily, as the project strives to keep Internet access open to all, hinting at the project’s early success in preserving citizens’ Internet access.

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