Middle East

Iran's New Internet Attacks on Dissenters

Iranian employees of Golagha magazine work on the layout. The periodical has to be careful that its content does not break religious taboos or fail to respect political power. (Photo: Behrouz Mehri / AFP-Getty Images)

In recent weeks, there has been a notable increase in Facebook "friend requests" from colleagues and friends in Iran. It seems that someone has decided to allow more Iranians access to the Web site, at last.

Facebook is one of the most popular online social networking venues among Iranians and it's estimated that over 200,000, mostly living abroad, are members.

Alexa.com, which collects Web traffic and ranking data, shows that a quiet but significant change took place among the usual top-ranked Web sites' weekly visits inside Iran. However, blog providers remain on top on the list — Blogfa, a free Persian Weblog service, claims to have more than 1,500,000 member blogs. Other providers, including Persian Blog, Mihan Blog, and Parsiblog are said to have an estimated 700,000 members, while roughly 300,000 Persian users frequent Wordpress, Blogger and Blogsky.
Iran is credited with having the third largest blogsphere after the United States and China, with 2.5 million blogs drawing approximately 5 million hits per day. It is estimated that Iranian bloggers tend to update their blogs on an average of at least once per week.

It is well known that the Iranian government has been filtering online political dissident and critical blogs for years. This has forced bloggers to search for other less conspicuous Web venues to exercise their right to express themselves freely. Until last month many such providers, like Blogger and Wordpress, were banned by most Internet providers in Iran.

The Islamic Republic is notorious not only for banning and filtering blogs, and the Internet generally, but also for inflicting heavy punishments on non-conformist bloggers, such as kidnapping, imprisonment, and torture. At the present time there are about 20 bloggers, including five women's rights activists, in jail where there are many stories of suspicious suicides and deaths.

A committee drawn from the Ministry of Intelligence, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the High Council of Cultural Revolution, and the ministries of Communication, and Islamic Guidance and Culture are responsible for the filtering and banning activity.

Reportedly, more than 5 million sites have been banned in Iran, including political, entertainment, scientific, adult, photography, sharing, and social networking venues.

The filtering has also affected some religious Shiite sites, based on some Fatwa content featuring Islamic guidance on sex and marriage. The committee's software is able to seek these words out, send the sites to a blacklist, and filter/ban them. Ironically, and on a slightly humorous note, the very same filtering system also banned content from some highly respected Ayatollahs who then cried, "Why have you filtered my Web site?"

However, since last month something has definitely changed. Some of the most popular social networking sites such as Facebook and Youtube, among others, are now slightly accessible, but not without severe repercussions for their use.

At the same time, a new and virulent wave of Internet attacks against many journalists and activists inside and outside of Iran has begun to emerge.

Last week, by chance, I noticed there is another Omid Habibinia on Facebook who has not only added my close friends and colleagues, but also my little sister. Strangely, the fake ID holder added a Swiss girl who I have spoken with and has contacted her several times to know if she can play in a docudrama about a Swiss girl who has an online friend from Iran.

I am also aware that fake ID holders have contacted other friends and asked some "strange questions."

Facebook makes an ideal platform for intelligence agents in Iran to infiltrate social networks, where they can hack information, locate events, addresses and monitor their subjects.

I have learned that my Gmail account has previously been accessed without my permission, and the persons responsible knew every contact, place and idea that I shared with others, including the re-launch of a well-known Web site that was put online about five years ago called Freedom of Expression (Azadi e Bayan). It was the first site to support Ahamad Batebi, who was kidnapped during his leave from jail after his meeting in Tehran with Ambeyi Ligabo, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights' special rapporteur on freedom of expression in November 2003. The site also supported all journalists, artists, intellectuals and bloggers who were facing danger within the Islamic Republic.

Another kind of attack was recently perpetrated by "special hackers" against Balatarin, the Persian version of Digg.com.

The hackers stole the owners' IDs of this popular site, including a well-known news source in Iran. The information gleaned was used to try and hack into their bank accounts. At the same time, Balatarin was ordered to reformat their servers, making it more difficult to discover the identities of the hackers. This Web site draws more than 250,000 pageviews per day and is used as a source for following news, even among journalists.

During recent weeks, many Iranian journalists and prominent bloggers have claimed that their IDs were closed by Facebook, due to being reported for insulting or even pornographic content.

The same trick has also been used on other bloggers. Some, who use providers outside of Iran, are reported on by agents and requests are made to the blog providers for closure or to have a warning sign placed before a visitor can access the content. The complaint is that these blogs are an insult to religion or pornographically offensive. I know some bloggers who only post their usual poems on their blogs, which most of the time are neither blasphemies or erotic, but have still incurred an online warning message.

The same thing is happening on Youtube. Many demonstrations and protests in Iran are captured by mobile phones and shared on the video-sharing site. However, some of the videos have been removed because of the pressure placed on Youtube through the report of supposed insults. Some gaffs by Iranian leaders or by TV presenters are also sometimes removed by Youtube. It is clear when in a two-day period, 200 reports are received asking for the removal of certain videos, that site administrators might follow suit.

However, it seems obvious that most of these e-mails and reports came from a specific place in Tehran.

Non-conformist Iranian bloggers are now facing a new form tyranny from information and intelligence insiders on the Internet. It is hard to know who is who. I am not sure if Shirin is the Shirin who was a former colleague on TV, or if she is a fake. The strange thing is when I message her on Facebook I get the wrong answer or no answer. I always ask some personal questions about a given person's past to ascertain their true identity, but who knows if the hackers have access to background details and can correctly answer the questions?

In less than six months there is going to be another round of elections in Iran and it seems that this coordinated attack on journalists, bloggers and activists is being facilitated through Internet communication. It appears that the ultimate goals are to silence, threaten and send signals of monitoring and stolen information to infiltrate networks. Those in question have learned that they can use Facebook and Youtube for their propaganda as well.

While many concerned individuals with Facebook accounts are sifting through their newly-added friends list to find suspicious ones, the hidden war of censorship and anti-censorship continues inside Iran.

Omid Habibinia is an Iranian journalist who has worked for state radio and television organizations as a senior media researcher and producer.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Omid Habibinia.