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

elham gheytanchi elhamucla at
Fri Feb 19 08:25:50 PST 2010

specially since we know people in Iran do use these anti-filters. 


There was a panel in Dartmouth college last week on a similar topic:


"Activism in the Electronic Age: The Impact of technology on political protest" in Dartmouth College, February 9th 2010. <>



elham gheytanchi   


From: yishaym at
Date: Fri, 19 Feb 2010 16:18:38 +0000
To: companys at
CC: liberationtech at
Subject: Re: [liberationtech] NEWS: Activists aim to punch holes in online shields of authoritarian regimes

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

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  408-278-3496 .

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