A couple of weeks ago I was at Small Media, a non-profit that tracks the usage of the internet in Iran, for a one-hour power introduction to what it’s currently like for people in Iran to use the internet.
It was a good reminder of how the other half lives, so to speak. I spend so much time mucking about on the web that I don’t often pay attention to the fact that freedom of speech is threatened in countries like Iran, and it was good to step out of the familiar that evening.
Graduate student Maral Pourkazemi had a large-scale representation of her work on the ‘halal’ internet, a phrase I only learnt that day but that I now realise is being mentioned a fair bit. I asked Maral it would be safe to go back to her country for a visit, and she said probably not, for the time-being. I overheard another Small Media employee, recently returned from Iran, mention how a friend of hers was arrested a day or two after she left the country and how it was quite possible she might have been arrested as well if she was still there.
We were then split into two groups, where we took it in turns to get a feel for what the internet is like in Iran. The foundation had set up two computers which mirrored the Iranian firewall, and we played a game that involved picking out websites noted down on post-its at random to check which of them would be blocked. It was fascinating to learn that the decision to block sites is fairly random; a committee of people has an eye on web usage and the government blocks any site they see has an unusual amount of activity. They unblock sites as randomly, but poetry, sexual content, blogs of any outspoken voices against the government and comedians are most likely to be firewalled.
Following that was a group discussion with staff from the TOR project, which allows anonymous use of the web, and the Briar project, a secure discussion system. There are 40-50,000 daily users of TOR in Iran, despite the fact that using VPN to access the web is illegal. TOR’s system is encrypted every 24 hours because they see daily attacks, but they mentioned that as long as they allow connections to the outside world, TOR would continue to be provided and no doubt used by thousands of people in countries like Iran.