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[liberationtech] NEWS: Activists aim to punch holes in online shields of authoritarian regimes

Yosem Companys companys at
Thu Feb 18 08:05:27 PST 2010

 Activists aim to punch holes in online shields of authoritarian regimes

By John Boudreau
<jboudreau at>

jboudreau at
 Posted: 02/15/2010 07:32:00 PM PST

It is the Internet version of David vs. Goliath — computer savvy activists
who launch guerrilla tech attacks to punch holes in online shields erected
by governments to control what their citizens do online.

One of the newest cyber-warriors is Austin Heap, a 25-year-old San Francisco
software developer who helped launch Haystack, a program to help Iranians
wiggle past government filters as tensions between authorities and the
opposition movement surge.

"It's an arms race," said Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on Chinese censorship
who is familiar with efforts to open up the Internet in Iran as well as
other authoritarian countries. "There is no precedence for this."

Heap is not alone. He's one of a growing number of online activists building
software tools designed to serve as virtual slingshots to take on government
censorship. Experts in the field, though, caution that programs devised to
assist dissidents and others trying to elude authorities online are not
fail-proof in the never-ending battle of wits and technology between
authoritarian regimes and savvy geeks.

"There is no silver bullet," said Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of
Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Anyone who purports
otherwise, he added, risks sounding naive.

Call to action

The tension between online free speech and government crackdowns hit the
headlines again last week. During the 31st anniversary of Iran's Islamic
Revolution, the government reportedly shut down phone and Internet services,
though videos of protesters still made their way onto YouTube. The Iranian
government also said it was shutting down Google's Gmail service and would
roll out its own e-mail service.

Heap's call to action, though, came last summer after the disputed Iranian
presidential election triggered mass protests.

Heap, who was working for a San Francisco nonprofit at the time, joined
netizens around the country working to help Iranians report on what was
happening on the ground through the social-networking sites Twitter and
Facebook. He posted online instructions on how to use "proxy servers" — such
as routing an Internet request through another computer to access a blocked
Web site. "Thousands and thousands of people around the world turned their
computers at home into proxy servers for people in Iran," Heap recalled.

"Somebody had to make a more sustainable and scalable method of getting
around the Iranian censorship,'' he said. "These proxy servers weren't going
to cut it. We couldn't do this on a massive scale."

By August, Heap and others eventually launched a nonprofit to support their
work of making and maintaining the Haystack program aimed specifically at
Iranians trying to maneuver around the authorities online. The co-founder
and executive director of the group sees his mission as providing a basic
human right — unfettered freedom of expression online.

Liberties in U.S.

"We never wake up in the morning and wonder if our cell phones will work,
what will happen when I load Gmail, whether or not I can send a text
message," he said. "I do not have a lot of respect for an organization that
is trying to control people violently and telling them what they can and
can't do online."

His desire to provide the help others have unimpeded access to the Internet
is deeply personal.

The Internet expanded his world as a teen growing up in Ohio, where he lived
in a small town in which students could get "time off to show off a pig at
the county fair."

"That was not my thing," Heap said. "The Internet was a way for me to
connect to smart people. It was my way to connect with the world."

He moved to San Francisco about two years ago and joined the ranks of those
devoted to liberating the Internet from authoritarian interference full time
some seven months ago. He quickly garnered the attention of others engaged
in the cause.

'Eye of hurricane'

"Austin happened to find himself at the center of a human network and became
a clearinghouse of information about what was going on (in Iran) and
information about how to get information," Zittrain said. "For people who
come forward and find themselves in the eye of a hurricane — there is no
other feeling like it: 'Wow, I made a difference.' And that, of course, is
what we all want to say.''

Haystack, Heap said, works on two levels. It encrypts online communication
and then cloaks it to appear like normal Web traffic.

Jacob Appelbaum, a San Francisco programmer with the longtime open source
Tor Project, a cloaking program used by corporations and free speech
activists alike, said closed systems like Haystack concern him. He said it
has no peer review the way the Tor Project does, which has been created and
vetted by programmers around the world over many years.

"He has not opened it up for research," Appelbaum said. "No one has seen a
copy of his specifications. There is no way we can understand if the claims
that are made (by Haystack) are true."

At worst, a faulty program could put its users in Iran at risk, he said.
"That very much concerns me," Appelbaum added. "When people's lives are at
risk, it's not a good idea to be arrogant."

But Heap countered that worries about Haystack are part of the larger debate
between those who advocate open-source development as a way to pick the
brains of a worldwide community and others who embrace a private source code
for faster development and security.

Chess match

But many experts say this ever-changing chess game — a deadly one, at that —
requires many different tools to combat increasing sophistication of
governments determined to clamp down on what citizens can access and not

"These tools are essential," MacKinnon said. "It's very good that more and
more groups are working on these tools."

In fact, it can be perilous to rely on a small, though trusted, technology.

"It wouldn't be good if people had to depend on just one or two tools,"
MacKinnon said. "What if something happens to the developers? What if it
goes down or a government figures out a way to block it or disable it? It's
important to have alternatives."

For those on the front lines, another cyber-weapon is more than welcome.

Haystack is a "great tool," said Mana Mostatabi, online community manager
for United 4 Iran, an organization that promotes human rights in the Persian
country. However, she added that her group will "wait and see how it

The online free-speech movement is relatively young, she added. The more
tools available for activists, the better, Mostatabi said.

"It's not that one is right and one is wrong," she said. "You are going to
see more and more of these."

Contact John Boudreau at 408-278-3496.
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