“we need a Satellite to provide free internet access to Iran”
Iranian Activists: Fight for Iran is Battle Over Access to Technology
Press Release 23 March 2010
Washington, D.C. – After the 2009 political upheaval in Iran, both the strength of the Iranian government and momentum of the Green movement remain unclear. Both have endured, and both continue to be major forces in Iranian politics.
The Century Foundation (TCF) and the National Security Network (NSN) convened the first of several advisory groups to examine these issues and formulate recommendations on a way forward for Western governments concerned both with human rights inside Iran and the larger geopolitical situation around Iran. The group included eminent Americans and Europeans as well as Iranians with ties to the Green movement. This first meeting focused heavily on the role technology can play in connecting Iranians to each other and the world and articulated several recommendations, including:
• Increase Iranian public access to the internet by sanctioning companies that assist the Iranian government in Internet filtering, surveillance and eavesdropping.
• Build free, secure email access for activists to use inside Iran. There is no major secure free email in Iran.
• Facilitate the provision of high-speed Internet via satellite. The regime deliberately has slowed the internet to reduce the time in which Iranians can communicate and read the internet.
• Dedicate a hardened satellite to host Iranian channels. This would enable effective Persian news services, such as the BBC Persian and Voice of America to escape the Islamic Republic’s routine jamming efforts. This is one of the most important measures that can be under taken.
• The full recommendations can be found at the end of this release as well as at www.nsnetwork.org & www.insideIRAN.org.
"Technology is the very most important thing," said one Iranian activist who is a professor in Tehran. "Lack of access to technology is the biggest problem the Greens have now." The Iranian activists emphasized that the current crisis could turn on the degree to which each side has access to the internet. The recommendations-which will be passed along to government officials and members of Congress-also emphasize that the United States should embark on a clear policy to liberalize the power of digital technologies.
"Such a policy focused on technology would be a much more effective strategy to eventually bring political reform to Iran, rather than broad-based U.S. sanctions that are likely to harm the Iranian people. While direct U.S. assistance could taint the Green movement and prompt the regime to impose an even more severe crackdown on civil society, there are measures the U.S. government could take to make it easier for Iranians to communicate with each other inside Iran and with the outside world," said Geneive Abdo, who convened the working group and is the editor of insideIRAN.org. Echoing concerns from Iranian dissidents, Abdo continued that "The Iranian activists believe it is time for the United States to broaden its approach to Iran and pursue several policies at once. They emphasized that the options for dealing with Iran should not be two stark choices of a military attack or fullylegitimizing the regime, but a third way — gradually empowering civil society in order to reform the Islamic republic."
Co-convener Heather Hurlburt, Executive Director of the National Security Network, added: "These recommendations show that there is a rich mine of options for dealing with Iran — and a deep bench of talented people thinking hard about the problem — beyond the sterile Washington debate on sanctions. If Iran policy is to succeed now where it has failed before, we need to listen to their voices."
TCF – NSN Advisory Task Force on Iran: Initial Recommendations
The insideIRAN.org project at The Century Foundation and the National Security Network are convening a year-long advisory task force comprised of North American, European, and Iranian participants, well-connected either to their respective countries’ policy-making on Iran or, in the case of the Iranians, to civil society and the Green Movement. The group aims to improve understanding of the political crisis inside Iran, particularly the state of the regime and the opposition, and to focus attention on policy steps that will be most effective in helping Iranians to reform their political system without empowering the regime against either its own people or other nations.
At the group’s first meeting on February 19 in Washington, D.C., a number of prominent Iranian activists focused the group’s attention on the high importance of information technology, and the regime’s success in using it to limit and control free expression and activism. They emphasized the important roles Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube play for Iranian dissidents to communicate with each other and obtain information about events inside Iran, which are often misrepresented in the country’s state-run media. Yet, Western thinking about sanctions and other actions that would help dissidents has not been focused in this area-and, surprisingly, some Western companies are playing a role in jamming and surveillance of the activists’ communications.
The Iranian activists unanimously agreed that the United States should embark on a clear policy to liberalize the power of digital technologies. At the same time, they said they opposed more broad-based U.S. sanctions and expressed great concern with moves intended to "help" the opposition that might give the regime excuses to claim foreign interference and deepen an already repressive crackdown on civil society. As a solution that would help the opposition without tainting it, they recommended a list of measures that the U.S. government could undertake in order to combat the coercive actions of the Iranian government while also making it easier for Iranians to connect to the outside world through the Internet and satellite television.
Executive Branch Recommendations
Increase Iranian Public Access to Unfiltered Internet
• Sanction companies that assist the Iranian government in Internet filtering, surveillance, and eavesdropping.
Support Tools that Allow Iranians to Communicate Freely In and Outside Iran
• Provide Skype credits. This Internet service allows Iranians inside the country to establish secure means of communications with those outside the country. By purchasing Skype credit, as low as $30 dollars, users would be able to contact the outside world freely without fearing government’s eavesdropping efforts.
• Build free, secure e-mail access for the use of activists inside Iran. There is no major secure free e-mail in Iran. Yahoo Mail provides very little security. Gmail provides more security, but is still vulnerable to key loggers. The Iranian government banned Gmail access recently, thus disabling access to Gmail’s relatively better e-mail services.
• Encourage/permit tech companies to support Persian-language online advertising. This would give Iranians abroad another private-sector tool to target those inside the country and allow websites promoting human rights or help to distribute information to make a small amount of advertising money needed in order for them to pay for their costs.
• Fund/permit Persian-fluent web developers to partner in building websites for civil society. There is a need for developers to build Persian websites. There are a number of web developers outside Iran who have good command of Persian and are willing to build such websites. Payment to such developers inside Iran can be capped at $30,000 a year per organization in order to limit abuses.
Legislative Branch Recommendations
Use Sanctions, Technology to Counter Satellite Jamming The Islamic Republic sends jamming signals to commercial satellites, disrupting their broadcasts. Many commercial satellites are reluctant to host Persian- language television channels fearing their satellites might get attacked. These satellites can be jammed because uploads and downloads are sent on a fixed frequency. Newer commercial and military satellites, however, are built to resist such jamming with noise filtering and anti-jamming equipment.
• Levy sanctions on foreign and Iranian companies actively involved in helping the Iranian government’s satellite jamming. Prominent Western satellite firms are helping the government block Iranians’ access to foreign news networks such as the BBC, VOA, and German television, and providing satellite services to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Broadcasting (IRIB), such as IntelSat and EUtelSat of France.
• Dedicate a hardened satellite to host Iranian channels. This would enable effective Persian news services, such as BBC Persian and Voice of America, to escape the Islamic Republic’s routine jamming efforts. This is one of the most important measures that can be undertaken by the U.S. government in order to ease the free flow of information to Iran.
• Facilitate the provision of high-speed Internet via satellite. The regime deliberately has slowed the internet to reduce the time in which Iranians can communicate and read the internet. Making alternative satellites available-aside those used by the regime-could allow Iranians to have high-speed Internet.
• Broadcast digital content via satellite to millions of users in Iran. This is less expensive than the two-way satellite connection discussed above. One-way content delivery would permit the transmission of popular websites, such as YouTube, to users inside the country.
Increase Iranian Public Access to Unfiltered Internet
• Exempt from sanctions export of software, hardware, technology, and services to overcome the Iranian government’s means to block or filter internet access. Currently, companies such as Microsoft and Google block downloads by Iranians, fearing they might violate U.S. sanction laws. For example, GTalk and Google Earth are not available to Iranian users. The government can easily access such technologies through its proxies abroad, but citizens cannot.