At a Tehran cafe, a young man turns on his laptop to check out the latest gossip on Facebook. The scene could be repeated anywhere in the world, but the difference in Tehran is that he, like countless other Iranian Internet users, is breaking the law.
The social networking site was banned in Iran, along with Twitter, YouTube and countless others, shortly after the 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the huge street protests that followed.
Seen by the government as part of a “soft war” waged by the enemies of Iran, social networking and picture-sharing sites were a vital communication tool for the anti-Ahmadinejad camp – more than a year before they played a similar role in popular uprisings that toppled Arab dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt.
In Iran, trying to access Facebook on a normal Internet line will redirect the user to a page familiar to anyone who has surfed the web here – www.peyvandha.ir (“links.ir”). This page suggests an array of government-approved sites the user might like to try instead, the first being a searchable online Koran.
The filter page says blocked sites are those considered criminal; that offend “Islamic sanctities” or insult public and government officials. But, for many Iranians, bypassing the government filter is as easy as switching on the computer.
Access to a virtual private network can be obtained – by making discreet enquiries to the right kind of person among Iran’s well-informed computer savvy youth – for as little as $60 per year. The VPN makes the computer appear as if it is based in another country, allowing it to bypass the filter.
“I think the server’s in Malaysia,” said one young computer user, himself an IT manager in Tehran, who asked not be identified for fear of prosecution.
While the VPN gives access to blocked sites, it does not protect the user from potential monitoring, he said. “I don’t know if my VPN is safe or not. You just have to hope,” he said.
While Iranians have little difficulty accessing forbidden sites, that does not mean the government is neglecting the “soft war” – the term it uses to describe Western propaganda it believes is aimed at weakening the Islamic system of government.
“The Revolutionary Guard has succeeded in creating a cyber army and today it is the second cyber army in the world,” Ebrahim Jabbari, a commander of the elite military force, told the semi-official Fars news agency last year.
The exact nature of Tehran’s counter-offensive in the soft war is not clear but a key part is thought to be monitoring and blocking content and clamping down on people posting material deemed “unacceptable.”
U.S.-based think tank Freedom House, in a report published last month on Internet freedom around the world, said Iran had jailed 50 bloggers of whom a dozen are still in detention.
Hossein Derakhshan, dubbed Iran’s “Blogfather” due to his pioneering of blogging in Farsi, was jailed for 19 years in September for “cooperating with hostile countries, spreading propaganda and insulting religious figures,” according to a human rights activist who spoke to Reuters at the time.
Freedom House ranked Iran the worst of all 37 countries in its report – below Burma, China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia. It said Tehran was waging “an active campaign against Internet freedom.”
“The 2009 election seemed to mark the end of [Iran’s] internal debate, as the leadership decisively chose political control over the benefits of a more open society,” said the report sponsored by, among others, the United Nations Democracy Fund and Google.
Aside from filtering and the threat of legal action, one simple way of restricting Internet access is to slow the system down to the point where it is unusable.
While this is not an officially acknowledged policy, Iranians say it happens regularly during politically sensitive times, such as when opposition demonstrations were being organized last February for the first time in more than a year.
“I talked to the ISP [Internet service provider] and they told me sharks had attacked the undersea cable,” said the Tehrani IT manager, who was unable to get on the Web around the time of a Feb. 14 demonstration.
“We were both laughing. They were told to say that.”
In addition to official action against the “soft war,” there are some reports that pro-government Iranians may also be taking up computer arms against the enemy.
In March, a hacker in Iran attacked Comodo, a U.S.-based company that issues security certificates for websites, in an apparent attempt to set up fake versions of websites belonging to Google, Yahoo, Skype, Mozilla and Microsoft.
According to a New York Times report on March 24, Comodo described the attack as well-planned and deployed with “clinical accuracy” from computers located mainly in Iran. Many analysts have speculated it was the work of the Iranian government.
Comodo said it quickly spotted and dealt with the intrusion.
But a message posted on the Internet, apparently by a freelance Iranian computer expert, claimed he had hacked the company in protest at cyber attacks on his country.
“I’m not a group, I’m single hacker with experience of 1000 hacker,” read the message, in broken English, posted at http://pastebin.com/74KXCaEZ.
“I’m a GHOST,” it continued, saying the writer was 21 years old and had no connection with Iran’s “cyber army.”
“I’m unstoppable, so [be] afraid if you should [be] afraid, worry if you should worry.” He ended his message in Farsi: “Janam Fadaye Rahbar” which roughly translates as “may my life be sacrificed for the leader,” referring to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The hacker said his attack was in part revenge for the Stuxnet virus – a computer worm discovered last year that several experts said appeared aimed at damaging Iran’s nuclear facilities and may have contributed to the latest delay in starting up its first nuclear power station at Bushehr.
Tehran denies accusations, voiced most vocally by the United States and Israel, that it is seeking nuclear weapons, saying its nuclear ambitions are purely peaceful.
Tehran’s two greatest foes have said they do not rule out pre-emptive strikes to stop Iran developing the bomb. But some see Stuxnet as a signal they are favouring cyber war over conventional military action.
Neither country has confirmed it is behind the virus.
Internet speeds even at the best of times are not great in Iran. To get anything more than 128 megabits per second, Iranians have to prove a professional need for such bandwidth at home. By comparison, 1 gigabit per second is hardly considered speedy by broadband consumers in the West.
The government has suggested quicker web access will be more widely available once it has created an alternate, religiously approved, Internet.
“The preliminary work for setting up the first ‘halal’ Internet have been done,” Ali Aghamohammadi, an official in Ahmadinajad’s office in charge of economic affairs, told the official IRNA news agency last month.
“We would then witness great improvements in the government’s electronic services as well as e-commerce and e-banking systems,” Aghamohammadi said. “Such a network could be expanded and also could be connected to neighboring countries.”
Details of how the Iran-wide network would look are sketchy, but government critics fear it would be a way to exert greater control and possibly even isolate Iran completely from the World Wide Web once its own network is up and running.
Unlike North Korea and Cuba, where there is little or no access to the Internet, any suggestion that Iran would be unplugged from the web is unthinkable in an emerging industrialized country with a large, young and well-educated population.
“Limiting access to the Internet would have a huge negative impact on academics and students,” said Ali Jahangiri, a U.S.-based computer expert.
Iran ranks number 36 out of 210 countries in the world for the number of Internet users, with 8.2 million, about the same as a medium-sized European country, according to 2009 figures from the International Telecommunication Union.
For Reza Marashi, of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, Tehran aims to “quarantine” its population from the global Internet.
“Producing indigenous search engines and email accounts – tools that allow the Internet to function – will help the government control the physical infrastructure of the Internet itself,” he said in a report published on April 30.
“By building filtration mechanisms into the infrastructure, the government will not only increase its control over the flow of information within Iran, but also information coming in and out,” Marashi said.
“This would be a huge – perhaps irreparable – blow to Iran’s internal opposition.”
Back in the Tehran cafe, the young IT manager predicted it would not be easy to stop Iranians accessing the Internet that has become a central part of their lives.
“Iranian people have learned to adapt,” he said, exhaling apple-flavoured smoke from a water pipe. “Computer systems always have a crack. You just have to find it.”