Internet Freedom Group Helps Dissidents Abroad

At an undisclosed location in North Carolina, Bill Xia worked desperately to keep his servers from crashing. More than 6,000 miles away, the streets of Tehran were thronged with protesters, police, and pro-government thugs. With independent media coverage blocked, the regime was bent on cutting off the protesters' access to critical Web sites as well. The result would be a near-total news blackout. Iranian activists were counting on Xia and a handful of other U.S.-based programmers to keep their lines open to the rest of the world.

Xia and his partners in the U.S.-based Global Internet Freedom Consortium produce some of the most powerful circumvention software available: "filter-buster" programs designed to help users break through the online barriers erected by authoritarian regimes. On a single day following Iran's disputed presidential election last June, GIFC's Farsi-language interface logged more than 400 million hits from 1 million distinct users, Xia says. The overwhelming traffic caused their systems to go down not once but twice. The only way GIFC could handle such a crush was by turning many visitors away from some of the most heavily used sites. After several frantic hours, Xia thought he had things running smoothly. Then his phone rang. "Please remove the restrictions," begged a caller from Tehran. Xia couldn't say no. "We'll do our best," he promised.

Xia and his partners say their best is far from good enough. Since late June, the only way GIFC has been able to protect its servers from being overwhelmed again is to limit Iranians' access. Even with the protective curbs, the Farsi interface has clocked about 200 million hits daily from roughly 300,000 distinct users during the latest flareup, according to GIFC's deputy director, Shiyu Zhou. But he isn't satisfied just to limp along from crisis to crisis. On the contrary, Zhou says: their goal is nothing less than to tear down the firewalls of every dictatorship around the world. With U.S. government funding, he believes his group can do just that.

But there's the problem. Although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on Jan. 21 that Internet freedom will be a policy priority, she gave few specific details on how she intends to implement it. And serious questions remain about whether or not the United States government should be in the business of enabling dissent in another country. For one thing, such efforts can do more harm than good. The George W. Bush administration's pro-democracy push backfired when Iranian academics and lawyers were arrested and accused of plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic through a Western-sponsored "velvet revolution." When Barack Obama took office, his administration adopted a less aggressive public stance on human rights. But lately he's begun talking tougher on the subject. "The decision of Iran's leaders to govern through fear and tyranny will not succeed," Obama said after the fatal protests on Ashura, the most sacred observance on the Shia calendar.

The trouble is that decades of blatant Western involvement in Iran's internal affairs have fed the growth of rampant paranoia in Tehran. The regime blames every problem on foreign interference and furiously accuses Iranian dissidents of being in the thrall of "Americans and Zionists." The hysteria can have cruel consequences. Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian-American director of the Middle East Program at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center, was arrested in 2007 while visiting her ailing mother in Tehran. She spent the next 105 days in Evin Prison on suspicion of being a foreign agent. Like other prisoners, she says that her jailers were obsessed with money Washington had allocated for civil-society groups, supposedly to undermine the regime. "That paranoia came to haunt me," she says. "Personally, I think democracy money didn't help much, and it caused a lot of problems for the Iranian NGOs on the ground."

But intervention may sometimes be necessary, says Ken Berman, director of information technology for the U.S.-funded Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America. The VOA has collaborated with GIFC and other circumvention-software makers for years. Despite the Iranian government's efforts to jam VOA's broadcasts and block its Persian News Network and Radio Farda Web sites, listeners in Iran could hear and spread the news during the elections by using filter busters. "We did receive some questions that said, 'Hey, you're meddling in Iranian affairs,' " says Berman. "I said, 'We're not telling people what to do. We just want to open up an unbiased channel to information.' "

That thought seems to terrify Tehran. At least two dozen countries systematically supervise what their citizens can see and say online, but Iran's filter is one of the toughest. Computer experts say the system runs "deep-packet inspections," examining everything from e-mails to social-networking sites for language, links or anything else the regime doesn't like. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps recently bought a controlling interest in Iran's telecommunications company, raising fears that communications in Iran will be watched more closely than ever. Even Internet service providers in Iran can be fined or shut down if they fail to block sites that are deemed by the government to be "anti-religion, immoral [or] anti-social-order."

Mere possession of circumvention software is technically against the law in the country, and late last year Iran's top police official, Brig. Gen. Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam, announced the creation of a special "cyberpolice division" to hunt down Internet users suspected of what the unit's chief calls "insults and spreading of lies" against the regime. The president's brother, Davoud Ahmadinejad, described the Internet's dangers at a security conference in Tehran recently. "Messages are sent from one point to another within seconds," he warned. "This is a threat to the country."

Tehran's worries don't get much sympathy in Washington. In the past three years, Congress has budgeted no less than $50 million for the State Department to sponsor programs that provide unmonitored and uncensored access to the Internet for users living in closed societies. There are several "hacktivist" groups devoted to thwarting the attempts of police states to monitor and control their citizens' Internet access, but none of them really beats the speed and user friendliness of GIFC's most popular filter busters, FreeGate and UltraSurf.

So far, State has confined all of its allocations to other groups, giving nothing to GIFC. "I continue to be disappointed that the State Department has failed to support the Global Internet Freedom Consortion tools and insists on ignoring clear congressional intent," Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback recently told NEWSWEEK via e-mail. "If our government is serious about standing with the brave dissidents in Iran, China, Burma, and repressive societies around the world, then we should focus resources on the tools that most effectively accomplish that goal."

Iran's activists couldn't agree more. "The Internet puts us one step ahead of the government," says an Iranian blogger, asking not to be named for fear of being arrested and silenced. "We need our friends in the United States and around the world to make sure we can continue using the Internet with as little interruption as possible."

Most circumvention software involves some form of encryption and usually relies on "proxy servers," using the Internet's multiplicity of built-in redundancies to dodge the censors' barriers. One of the oldest and most-used of these tools, TOR, was originally developed by the U.S. Navy in the 1990s not for circumvention but to protect government communications. The current version is good for cloaking a user's identity, but it's slow and not exactly for novices. Another circumvention tool, Psiphon, was developed at the University of Toronto. It's faster and relatively easy to use, but it can't really match TOR's security.

Then there's GIFC's FreeGate and UltraSurf. GIFC was founded by U.S-based adherents of the mystical Falun Gong sect, which is outlawed in China as an "apocalyptic cult." Chinese authorities have imprisoned thousands of devotees in the past decade, and Beijing has stifled public outcry by filtering any mention of the group—even its name—from Internet traffic. But American followers, including Xia, fought back by creating software to break the Chinese muzzle. The programmers committed themselves totally to the cause, using the salaries from their day jobs and mortgaging their homes to fund their work.

The costs haven't been only financial. Xia no longer shares his age, where he went to school, or exactly where he lives. He says he doesn't want to end up like his GIFC colleague, Peter Li. In 2006, several Asian men forced their way into Li's home at knifepoint, bound him, beat him up, ransacked his filing cabinets, and stole two laptops. GIFC members believe the men were sent by the Chinese government but admit they have no proof.

To meet the growing demand for their software in China, the group decided to ask for help. In the summer of 2006, Zhou met with Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and Mark Palmer, a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary. They took GIFC's case to Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf. "What the government had been doing up until that point hadn't been working," says Wolf, who sits on the House Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs and was working on their fiscal 2008 appropriations bill at the time. "So I put $15 million in for what we call 'Internet freedom activities.'"

Meanwhile Xia, Zhou, and their associates found themselves drawn into human-rights struggles that had nothing to do with the Falun Gong. Their servers clocked a tripling of daily traffic from Burma during that country's September 2007 democratic unrest, and a quadrupling coming out of Tibet during the March 2008 protests there. After GIFC noticed a surge of traffic from Iran in 2008, the team developed a Farsi interface. (The service is also available in Chinese, English, and Spanish.)

But when the State Department received the $15 million in Internet-freedom money, they awarded it to two other Internet-freedom groups. Wolf was so upset that he stalled delivery of the funds while he tried without success to dissuade the two recipients from accepting it. He and Horowitz say the State Department's decision was about one thing. "You could just tell they didn't want to go with the Falun Gong and they were searching for somebody else," Wolf says. Several senators and congressmen have written to Clinton twice in the past year with concerns that the 2008 money may have been misallocated and questioning some of the 2009 funding language, which could effectively cut a group like GIFC out of the running. As yet she has not responded.

The State Department declines to comment directly to protect those involved, but there are two obvious reasons to balk at funding GIFC. One is that paying large sums of cash to the Falun Gong's firewall-busting friends in GIFC would hardly advance U.S. efforts to win China's cooperation on global issues. The other problem is that the yellow-shirted pamphleters who have been the Falun Gong's most visible public representatives are regarded by many in Washington as a bunch of streetcorner cranks.

Iranian activists don't bother with such quibbles. GIFC's FreeGate tends to be their filter buster of choice, but they depend on its competitors, too. Mehdi Saharkhiz, a New-York based graphic designer, has become a one-man clearinghouse for Iranian protest videos on YouTube; his father, Issa Saharkhiz, is a prominent journalist who has been held in solitary confinement at Tehran's Evin prison since last summer. The son says video clips pour in from Iran via TOR, Psiphon, and UltraSurf, as well as Freegate. "One software may work one day and not the next," he says. "It's a cat-and-mouse game."

Does he worry that the medium might discredit the message? "People in Iran don't know who's behind the software," he says. "They use whatever works." The anonymous blogger in Iran goes further. "I hope Obama asks companies like Yahoo, Google, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to continue helping Iranian people in their struggle," he says. "These sites allow us to be in contact with each other and exchange ideas. The American government can help us by creating new filter busters, so we can have access to these sites and communicate better with each other."

It's no use now trying to pretend that America is only a neutral observer in the Iranian struggle. "The voices of democracy inside Iran have made it amply clear that they need noninterfering support from the international community for their just demands," says Abbas Milani, the director of Iranian studies at Stanford University. "Europe and the U.S. count for a great deal, and they must speak out."

Meanwhile Tehran continues to do everything it can to silence protesters. Zhou and Xia are determined to prevent that from happening—whether or not the State Department funds them. They know too well what a brutal regime is capable of. "Freedom [of information], that's the least we can provide people," Xia says. "If you don't have the right to know, what else can you have?"

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