Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

Promoting tolerance and justice through knowledge and understanding
Human Rights Watch

Outwitting Iran's cyber censors

Human Rights Watch
May 12, 2010

The EU can play a more active role in levelling out the information ‘playing field' inside Iran

by Faraz Sanei

When I visited Brussels recently, many EU officials wanted to discuss Tehran's fierce crackdown on freedom of information and what, if anything, the EU could do about it.

In recent months, the focus of the Iranian government's clampdown has shifted from city streets to the information super-highway. It has been carrying out a relentless campaign to control and restrict the flow of information to and from the country, particularly via satellite television and the internet.

After last year's disputed election, the government was caught off-guard by the overwhelming flow of internet traffic generated by ‘citizen journalists' and ‘netizens' using cell phones, email, and social media sites. But it has steadily closed the door on alternative media and mounted a multi-pronged censorship campaign against civil society. In this campaign, its officials have had access to increasingly sophisticated surveillance, filtering, and jamming technology from reputable European corporations such as Nokia-Siemens, with which they can disrupt the flow of information to and from Iran's mobile-phone, internet, and satellite users.

Last year, the government also introduced internet censoring legislation under the guise of a ‘cyber-crimes' bill and the Revolutionary Guard is taking more aggressive cyber-enforcement measures. When unable to monitor or disrupt the flow of information, the authorities simply shut or slow down internet connections and telecommunications signals. In February, Tehran said it planned to ban access to Google's Gmail permanently.

Tehran is also targeting those who are most effective at disseminating information: journalists, bloggers and human-rights defenders. In mid-March, the government arrested many members of local human-rights organisations and shut down their websites. Today, many of the groups' members are either in prison or have fled the country.

In other words, the information crisis in Iran has reached a critical stage. The EU can and should act.

Earlier this year, EU member states condemned Iran's jamming of Eutelsat signals carrying Persian-language programming from the BBC and Deutsche Welle into Iran, and European Parliament members criticised Nokia-Siemens for aiding the government crack-down. The EU is currently drafting guidelines for ‘best practices' for EU corporations dealing with governments such as Iran's.

But the struggle to promote freedom of information in Iran requires a more concerted policy. Companies should adopt standards, such as those articulated in the Global Network Initiative (GNI), to safeguard rights online. Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! are the only large corporate members of the GNI and no European company has joined so far. The EU and its member governments should insist that companies safeguard human rights through voluntary and mandatory measures, such as pressing European companies to join the GNI and considering legislation or regulation that would require companies to safeguard human rights. They should also take the lead in pushing the international community to adopt a comprehensive policy on internet freedom worldwide.

The EU also needs to help Iranian civil society to unblock existing channels of communication, or create new ones. For example, last month the US treasury department relaxed export controls for certain dual-use technology (technologies that have a legitimate use but could be used by governments for surveillance and censorship purposes) to allow internet users inside Iran to gain easier access to proxies and anti-filtering software. Haystack, one of the most sophisticated anti-filtering programmes, has just received a permit from the US government to send such software into Iran.

EU policymakers should design, co-ordinate and implement similar policies to enable the free flow of information to and from countries such as Iran, and to help Iran's civil society to circumvent the dizzying maze of surveillance, filtering and jamming roadblocks set up by the government.

These steps will help Iranians both to protect themselves and to keep a window on the abuses inside their country open to the rest of the world.

Faraz Sanei is a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch.