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On Looking Deeper, Or, Things About Iran You Might Not Know June 24, 2009

It has been an amazing week in Iran, and you are no doubt seeing images that would have been unimaginable just a few weeks ago.

For most of us, Iran has been a country about which we know very little…which, obviously, makes it tough to put the limited news we’re getting into a proper context.

The goal of today’s conversation is to give you a bit more of an “insider look” at today’s news; and to do that we’ll describe some of the risks Iranian bloggers face as they go about their business, we’ll meet a blogging Iranian cleric, we’ll address the issue of what tools the Iranians use for Internet censorship and the companies that could potentially be helping it along, and then we’ll examine Internet traffic patterns into and out of Iran.

Finally, a few words about, of all things, how certain computer games might be useful as tools of revolution.

The first task for today…let’s talk about blogging:

It turns out that bloggers in Iran risk running afoul of the Press Law of 1986, which, in addition to requiring the licensing of media outlets, reads in part:

Article 6: The print media are permitted to publish news items except in cases when they violate Islamic principles and codes and public rights as outlined in this chapter…

…5. Encouraging and instigating individuals and groups to act against the security, dignity and interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran within or outside the country…
…7. Insulting Islam and its sanctities, or, offending the Leader of the Revolution and recognized religious authorities (senior Islamic jurisprudents);
8. Publishing libel against officials, institutions, organizations and individuals in the country or insulting legal or real persons who are lawfully respected, even by means of pictures or caricatures; and
9. Committing plagiarism or quoting articles from the deviant press, parties and groups which oppose Islam (inside and outside the country) in such a manner as to propagate such ideas (the limits of such offenses shall be defined by the executive by-law)…

… Article 25: If a person, through the press, expressly and overtly instigates and encourages people to commit crimes against the domestic security or foreign policies of the state, as specified in the public penal code, and should his/her action bear adverse consequences, he/she shall be prosecuted and condemned as an accomplice in that crime. However, if no evidence is found on such consequences he/she shall be subject to a decision of the religious judge according to Islamic penal code.

Article 26: Whoever insults Islam and its sanctities through the press and his/her guilt amounts to apostasy, shall be sentenced as an apostate and should his/her offense fall short of apostasy he/she shall be subject to the Islamic penal code.

Article 27: Should a publication insult the Leader or Council of Leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran or senior religious authorities (top Islamic jurisprudents), the license of the publication shall be revoked and its managing director and the writer of the insulting article shall be referred to competent courts for punishment.

(In Iran, the penalty for apostasy is death.)

Those bloggers who are not licensed can still be prosecuted under the Penal Code, as the OpenNet Initiative reports in an excellent article they’ve just posted on the subject.

In 2008 the Iranian parliament passed a law which provides for the death penalty for bloggers who engage in non-permitted activities, a situation faced today by Yaghub Mehrnahad, who publishes the Mehrnahad blog.

(Interestingly, this blog can be reached in Persian, but an attempt to access the same URL with Google Translate returns this message:

“You are not authorized to view this page

The Web server you are attempting to reach has a list of IP addresses that are not allowed to access the Web site, and the IP address of your browsing computer is on this list.”

More about that later.)

There is also the risk of torture: a problem noted by the BBC at least as far back as 2005.

Ironically, Mohammad Ali Abtabi, a cleric and former Vice-President of Iran whom you may have recently seen on “The Daily Show” maintains a blog in which he does criticize Iranian society on a regular basis, including his assessment of the recent election as “a huge swindling”…which has now caused the authorities to place him under arrest.

So how does Iran manage to control Internet access?

What they aren’t doing is employing the simplest method possible: cutting off all access. This is presumably because of the negative impact on the Iranian economy that would be caused by business being unable to do what they need to do online.

There are several methods being employed, including a requirement that all Internet Service Providers in the country connect to the state-owned Data communication Company of Iran (DCI) for international access, that all ISPs put in place “filtering” and monitoring technologies, and that households be blocked from having access to high-speed Internet connections.

As of this writing the fastest Internet connection now available for an Iranian household is 128k, about double the speed of a dial-up connection…and as you might guess, not fast enough to allow Iranians to use such services as YouTube. A 6MB cable Internet connection, not uncommon in the US, would be roughly 50 times faster. Because of this the total capacity of Iran’s international Internet connections are roughly 12GB per second. Normal traffic is about 5GB per second, which, we are told, is about the same as a mid-size American city.

OpenNet reports that after an initial period of reliance upon foreign monitoring software, the government decided to create an “in-house” capability, and as a result there are locally developed software packages designed to allow access to the actual data packets in messages—meaning that authorities can read such things as e-mails and instant messages after they are sent and before they pass through the DCI “gateway”.

There has been a conversation regarding the role of Western equipment suppliers in all of this; and it is alleged that a Nokia/Siemens joint venture (Nokia/Siemens Networks) has sold to the Iranians equipment that is used to monitor the Internet use of Iranian citizens. The company denies this, however.

They also want you to know that the joint venture has been sold to a third party, and that, as their press release tells us: “providing people, wherever they are, with the ability to communicate ultimately benefits societies and brings greater prosperity”.

Another method of blocking access is to deny connections to certain sets of IP addresses, and this is why, presumably, I could not access the translated version of the “Mehrnahad” blog. This method would also allow the Iranians to block access to and from inside the country to sites like the BBC, Google, and Blogspot.

There is a way around “address blocking” which involves setting up “relays” and “bridges” that can be accessed by people in Iran—and this is something you yourself can do that can be of considerable benefit to Iranians trying to reach out to the rest of us.

The Iranian Government is also trying to locate and isolate those with Twitter accounts that are set to the Tehran time zone…and you can help make that process tougher by either setting up a Twitter account and setting the time zone to Tehran, or changing your existing account’s time zone.

The next few minutes are going to get a bit geeky, and for this I apologize in advance.

In order for your computer to use certain services that involve communicating with other computers the operating system utilizes a series of “ports” (this is all in the software, so don’t bother looking at the back of the machine to find them).

Some quick examples: the TCP/IP connection your computer is using to access the Internet is through Port 80 and the FTP service runs on Port 21.

There are two kinds of ports—TCP and UDP—and there is no reason to explain here why or how they differ.

There are thousands of ports, the ports used are usually specific to a particular service, and there are giant lists of assigned ports that everyone can access. A service can (and usually does) use more than one port for two-way communication with a computer, which is why the Federal Emergency Management Agency Information System uses TCP Port 1777 and UDP Port 1777.

The routing data that packets of information display as they travel through the Internet includes the port that the packet is seeking to access…and that data is accessible to all routers…and if you controlled the gateway through which all inbound and outbound Internet traffic was passing through you could block packets that seek to utilize certain ports.

Experts are suggesting that this is exactly what is happening today in Iran, with more than 80% of traffic bound for ports using the Adobe Flash Player being blocked, nearly 75% of the POP Service (e-mail) traffic being blocked, and roughly 70% of traffic bound for ports used by “proxy servers” being intercepted. (Proxy servers, by the way, are the same type of connections we discussed earlier that you can set up at home to help Iranians trying to reach the Internet.)

Voice over IP (VoIP), the Internet “telephone” service, is proving to be a troublesome issue for censors, as it has legitimate business purposes and is difficult to censor without either having someone listening on the other end of the line or installing a monitoring system worthy of the National Security Agency.

Interestingly, with the exception of the few hours immediately following the vote, the amount of Internet blockage, overall, seems to be fairly close to what it was just before the voting. However, the amount of “instability” has been highly variable, suggesting that certain blocks of IP addresses have been temporarily “withdrawn” from the Internet’s address structure, for want of a better term, and then once again made known to that same addressing infrastructure.

It is suggested that this may be because the Iranian Government has been able to institute a sufficient level of monitoring on those address blocks so as to make them comfortable with again allowing the users of those addresses access to the Internet.

In one of the oddest developments I’ve heard so far, there are reports that certain communications protocols used by some games are not being blocked. We will not go into specifics here, but it seems strange indeed that the video game your mother didn’t want you playing all day might actually be a tool for surreptitious communication.

And with all that said, let’s wrap it up for today.

Here’s what we’ve learned: it is indeed hazardous to be a blogger in Iran.

Despite the fact that it can get you tortured or get you the death penalty, there are those who take the risk—including a former Vice-President who now finds himself under arrest.

We can help Iranian citizens by installing software on our own computers that helps them obtain uncensored Internet access, and about 1/3 of that traffic is getting through.

The regime is not attempting to permanently shut down all Internet traffic—and in fact, that would be a cure that might be as bad as the disease.

The Iranian Government, instead, is developing and operating a sophisticated system of Internet blocking, but it is not perfect…and there are odd connections that could be used that most people would never think of as useful for the purpose.

Finally, a Western company is accused of selling equipment to Iran that could be used for Internet monitoring, but the company in question denies that the gear they sold Iran can perform the tasks the accusers say it can.

It is rare indeed to be able to see two revolutions taking place at the same time–but as you’re watching the news from the newest Iranian Revolution…keep an eye on the news of the Internet Revolution as well.

WARNING—Self-promotion ahead: I am competing for a Netroots Nation scholarship, and I was not selected in the first round of voting. There are two more chances to be selected…with an announcement due this week…so even if you’ve done so before, I still have to ask you to stop by the Democracy for America site and click on the “Add your support” link to offer your support for me again. Thanks for your patience, and we now return you to your regular programming.

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On The View From Egypt, Part One, Or, How Professionals Rig Elections October 3, 2008

It has been but a few hours since Sarah Palin took the stage to have a conversation with Joe Biden, and of course the Nation has a ton of questions.

What will happen now?
How will we view all this in a few days?
How will it affect McCain and Obama?

I don’t know…and I’m not even going to try to figure it out right this minute.

Instead, we’re going to take a trip halfway across the world to a country that has been essential to understanding the Middle Eastern story, has been at the center of international conflicts time and time again…and has lessons to teach us that, if we learn them well, could make us a much smarter “Foreign Policy Nation” than we are today.

The country? Egypt.

So grab your virtual passport…and after we arrive, there are a few people I want you to meet.

This is part one of a bigger story, and over the next few days I’m going to try to give you some recent history (well, recent for a country with a history that goes back 7,000 years…), along with an explanation of how political factions are aligned today…how some political factions aren’t even allowed to align…and a few words about the hazards of having an opinion in Egypt—even if it’s online.

Included will be a critical lesson: Democracy and Freedom, which we say we support, can lead to the election of people we don’t like…and that the true measure of a democracy is accepting—and sometimes even encouraging–those outcomes, even if we don’t like them.

So before we can talk about Egyptian politics, we have to talk about…Egyptian Politics.

The Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt has provisions that pretty much guarantee that there will be no meaningful political opposition. We’ll go right to the Constitution itself for an explanation of how it’s done (where it appears, emphasis was added by me):

PART ONE
THE STATE

Article 5
The political system of the Arab Republic of Egypt is a multiparty one, within the framework of the basic elements and principles of the Egyptian society as stipulated in the Constitution (Political parties are regulated by law).

PART TWO
BASIC CONSTITUENTS OF THE SOCIETY
CHAPTER 1
Social and Moral Constituents

Article 7
Social solidarity is the basis of the society.

PART THREE
PUBLIC FREEDOMS, RIGHTS AND DUTIES

Article 47
Freedom of opinion is guaranteed.
Every individual has the right to express his opinion and to publicise it verbally or in writing or by photography or by other means within the limits of the law.
Self-criticism and constructive criticism is the guarantee for the safety of the national structure.

Article 48
Freedom of the press, printing, publication and mass media shall be guaranteed.
Censorship on newspapers is forbidden as well as notifying, suspending or cancelling them by administrative methods.
In a state of emergency or in time of war a limited censorship may be imposed on the newspapers, publications and mass media in matters related to public safety or purposes of national security in accordance with the law.

The “State of Emergency” provision was invoked in 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat—and it has been faithfully renewed by his successor, President Hosni Mubarak, every two years since, most recently in May of this year.

You may have noticed that political parties are regulated by law. Specifically, it’s Law 177/2005. Below is the important language (emphasis will again be added where I think it is needed):

Article 4:
For a political party to be established or maintained, it shall satisfy the following conditions:

ii: The party’s principles, goals, platforms, policies or modalities of exercising its activities shall not contradict the Constitution or requirements of maintaining national unity, social peace and the democratic system.

iii: The party’s platform shall constitute an addition to the political life according to specific methods and goals.

iv: In its principles or platforms or in practicing its activities or selecting its leaderships or members the party shall not be based on religious, class, sectarian, categorical, geographical grounds or on manipulating religious feelings or discrimination on account of origin or creed.

VI: The party shall not pose as a branch of a foreign party or political organization.

Article 7:
A notice in writing shall be submitted to the chairman of Political Parties Affairs Committee stipulated in Article 8 hereof as regards the establishment of the party signed by at least 1000 constituent members whose signatures shall be officially authenticated. The members shall be drawn from at least ten governorates with no less than fifty members from each….

Article 8:
The Political Parties Affairs Committee shall be composed as follows:
1- the Speaker of the Shura Council, as chairman;
2- Minister of Interior;
3- Minister for the People’s Assembly Affairs;
4- three former heads or deputy heads of the judiciary bodies who are not affiliated to any political party; and
5-three public figures who are not affiliated to any political party, as members.
The selection of the members stipulated in Items 4&5 shall be made by a Presidential decree for three years renewable.
The Committee shall have the competence to examine and consider notices of the establishments of the parties according to the provisions of this law, let alone the other competencies stipulated therein…

We will continue with the text of Article 8 in a moment, but before we do, some explanations are in order.

The Shura Council is one of the two halves of Egypt’s Legislative Branch; and it serves a function somewhat similar to that of the United States Senate.

Because Egypt’s National Democratic Party (NDP) controls Parliament and the Presidency, the Political Parties Affairs Committee (PPAC), who grants the license you need to form a political party (and can revoke it as well…) consists of the Speaker of the Shura Council, (obviously, an NDP member), two members of the President’s Cabinet, and six people appointed by the President.

The obvious conflicts between this arrangement and what we would think of as a true multiparty system will be the focus of part two of this story…but for now, we return you to Article 8, already in progress:

…To exercise its competencies, the Committee may demand much documents, papers, data and clarifications at it deems as necessary, from the concerned parties as much time as it determines. It may also demand any documents, papers, data or information from any official or public body and it may conduct on its own or through a sub-committee of its own such research as it may deem appropriate. It may also commision [sic] any such official bodies as it may deem appropriate to conduct or study necessary to reach the truth about matters submitted thereto…

Article 9:
The party shall be a private judicial person…

Article 11:
The resources of the party shall consist in subscriptions of its members, financial support received from the State and the donations by Egyptian natural persons…

The party may not accept any contribution, privilege or benefit from any foreigner, any foreign or international body or from any judicial person type even if it enjoys Egyptian citizenship.

These clauses tell us that the Government’s PPAC can start it’s own investigations of any party—and that Parties are not allowed, by law, to align themselves together in coalitions.

I am often guilty of going too long in these stories…so let’s get to the end of part one.

Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and the NDP have created an ongoing quarter-century “emergency situation” that allows them to decide who can be a political party, that allows them to revoke the license of a party that they feel violates the rules they create…and because of the Constitutional mandate to protect “National Unity”, any political party that says the NDP is doing anything wrong is potentially in violation of the law.

These rules create conditions that are impossible to satisfy, and as a result politicians, protesters…and even bloggers…are at risk for arrest and imprisonment. But that’s a story for another day—and to make the story better, when we get together next time we’ll be meeting one of those politicians in a very close-up and personal way.