The unrest unfolding in Iran is the quintessential 21st-century conflict. On one side are government thugs firing bullets. On the other side are young protesters firing “tweets.”
The protesters’ arsenal, such as those tweets on Twitter.com, depends on the Internet or other communications channels. So the Iranian government is blocking certain Web sites and evicting foreign reporters or keeping them away from the action.
The push to remove witnesses may be the prelude to a Tehran Tiananmen. Yet a secret Internet lifeline remains, and it’s a tribute to the crazy, globalized world we live in. The lifeline was designed by Chinese computer engineers in America to evade Communist Party censorship of a repressed Chinese spiritual group, the Falun Gong.
Today, it is these Chinese supporters of Falun Gong who are the best hope for Iranians trying to reach blocked sites.
“We don’t have the heart to cut off the Iranians,” said Shiyu Zhou, a computer scientist and leader in the Chinese effort, called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. “But if our servers overload too much, we may have to cut down the traffic.”
Mr. Zhou said that usage of the consortium’s software has tripled in the last week. It set a record on Wednesday of more than 200 million hits from Iran, representing more than 400,000 people.
If President Obama wants to support democratic movements on a shoestring, he should support an “Internet freedom initiative” pending in Congress. This would include $50 million in the appropriations bill for these censorship-evasion technologies. The 21st-century equivalent of the Berlin wall is a cyberbarrier, and we can help puncture it.
Mr. Zhou, the son of a Chinese army general, said that he and his colleagues began to develop such software after the 1999 Chinese government crackdown on Falun Gong (which the authorities denounce as a cult). One result was a free software called Freegate, small enough to carry on a flash drive. It takes a surfer to an overseas server that changes I.P. addresses every second or so, too quickly for a government to block it, and then from there to a banned site.
Freegate amounts to a dissident’s cyberkit. E-mails sent with it can be encrypted. And after a session is complete, a press of a button eliminates any sign that it was used on that computer.
The consortium also makes available variants of the software, such as Ultrasurf, and other software to evade censors is available from Tor Project and the University of Toronto.
Originally, Freegate was available only in Chinese and English, but a growing number of people have been using it in other countries, such as Myanmar. Responding to the growing use of Freegate in Iran, the consortium introduced a Farsi-language version last July — and usage there skyrocketed.
Soon almost as many Iranians were using it as Chinese, straining server capacity (many Chinese are wary of Freegate because of its links to Falun Gong, which even ordinary citizens often distrust). The engineers in the consortium, worrying that the Iran traffic would crash their servers, dropped access in Iran in January but restored it before the Iran election.
“We know the pain of people in closed societies, and we do want to accommodate them,” Mr. Zhou said.
China is fighting back against the “hacktivists.” The government has announced that new computers sold beginning next month will have to have Internet filtering software, called Green Dam (the consortium has already developed software called Green Tsunami to neutralize it). More alarming, in 2006 a consortium engineer living outside Atlanta was attacked in his home, beaten up and his computers stolen. The engineers behind Freegate are now careful not to disclose their physical locations.
Granted, these technologies are not a panacea. One Chinese journalist estimated that only 5 percent of the country’s Netizens use proxy software, and the Iranians themselves managed a grass-roots revolution in 1979 without high-tech help. And at the end of the day, bullets usually trump tweets.
Still, it does make a difference when people inside closed regimes get access to information — which is why dictatorships make such efforts to block comprehensive Internet access.
“Freegate was a kind of bridge to the outside world for me,” said a Chinese journalist with dissident leanings, who asked not to be named. “Before accessing the Internet through Freegate, I was really a pro-government guy.”
Human-rights activists from Cuba, North Korea, Syria and elsewhere have appealed to Congress to approve the $50 million Internet freedom initiative, and Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch says he supports it as well.
The Obama administration has been quiet on the proposal. For Mr. Obama, this would be a cheap and effective way of standing with Iranians while chipping away at the 21st-century walls of dictatorship.