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

Yishay Mor yishaym at
Fri Feb 19 08:18:38 PST 2010

Can't help noticing that they only interviewed people from the US. I would
hope that subversive technologies would make it possible to interview users
from within Iran..
 Yishay Mor, London Knowledge Lab

On 18 February 2010 16:05, Yosem Companys <companys at> wrote:

>  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
> online.
> "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
> develops."
> 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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