It’s time to confront technology companies in the West on the role they play in censorship worldwide, says Claire Ulrich
The upheaval in Iran this week has led thousands around the world to discover the incredible power of Twitter. Because we are all so immature in our new online life, many of us can be intoxicated by this pinball machine of facts and emotions, and at times like the Iranian crisis, we behave like reckless toddlers. Protesters in Iran tweeted their name, photo, and location. Twitterers around the world retweeted them.
On day two, it dawned: someone over there could get hurt if the regime decided to crack down on bloggers, activists, and anyone having a Twitter handle. On day three, Twitter and Iran speed-trained thousands of people in complex computing techniques to circumvent censorship and cyber surveillance such as proxies, anonymisers, and Virtual Private Networks.
On day four, the first tweets about arrested Iranians bloggers and journalists came through. The Twitter and Iranian revolutions are happening side by side. But veteran Twitterers, who lived and tweeted through the uprising in Burma, the war in Gaza, riots in Madagascar, and the Karachi and Bombay suicide attacks, fear what will come next if large-scale repression takes place in Iran. With Twitter, we share the days of fellow men and women all over the world. We see (videos, photos), we hear, we feel, we look over their shoulders. But when policemen, floods, bombs and bullets strike, we are powerless to help. Let’s hope we will not experience that feeling for Iran through Twitter.
The fact that Iran’s protesters are clinging to Twitter as the last channel to reach out to the world should prompt Twitter users to ask a few question about web censorship and filtering in Iran. Western Twitterers often assume than the Iranian government knows nothing about technology and relies on tight police surveillance. In fact, the Iranian regime is extremely tech savvy. Starting in the 1990s, enormous funds where invested into new technologies by the Shia clergy. Shia sacred scriptures and religious material were scanned and digitised, and clergymen and seminarians were trained to blog. The Iranian government is a world leader in web censorship. The weekly meeting at the Tehran Ministry of the interior, to set the agenda for blocking and filtering the Internet, is hardly a secret.
But what lies at the core of the Iranian Internet censorship system, or any government filtering policy, nowadays? Filtering and surveillance software. Who manufactures those? Western companies.
The software of US companies Secure Computing and Websense has been used to filter the Internet in Iran as well as in authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East. Secure Computing management has vigorously denied licensing its use when confronted, accusing Iran of “illegal use of its software”. There is nothing wrong or illegal with selling network security software to business companies, schools, libraries, as those companies do. But selling filtering software to governments means that any regime or government, nowadays, can monitor, censor, and even cut off communications on the web with a few clicks. It is also of course illegal for US companies to do business with Iran. Isn’t it time to confront American and European software companies on their contracts with foreign governments and the part they play in censorship in Iran, and worldwide?
Claire Ulrich is a contributor to Le Monde weekend supplement, and editor of Global Voices in French