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Impearls: A Defense for Endangered Bloggers in Authoritarian Lands

Item page — this may be a chapter or subsection of a larger work.  Click on     link to access entire piece.

Earthdate 2005-07-24

A Defense for Endangered Bloggers in Authoritarian Lands

Glenn Reynolds the Instapundit and others have frequently linked to articles discussing the plight of overseas bloggers and Interneters who are under attack and repression from authoritarian and tyrannical governments — for example, here, here, and here in the case of Iran; here, here, and here for China.  Indeed, Reynolds closes the last of the foregoing pieces with the comment that “Somebody needs to catalog the tricks the Chinese bloggers are using — if the F.E.C. gets its way, we may need some of them over here….”

Given Reynolds' thus long-demonstrated history of interest in and support for beleaguered foreign bloggers, I'm quite mystified why he and other bloggers of like mind haven't publicized at all the service provided to endangered bloggers — as a result of an explicit contract to that effect from the Voice of America — by the Anonymizer company.  I've let Glenn know about this on several different occasions, and even requested that he inform me if he has a good reason for not publicizing the information (so I could avoid doing so myself), but never got any reply back.  Lacking such a reason, I'll now go ahead and do it myself.

It was Glenn, in fact, who in this posting from early this year pointed me at this Slashdot article entitled “Iran Cracks Down on Internet Sites.”  As the piece says (follow the above link for links included within it):

Dan Brickley writes “It appears that Iranian ISPs have been ordered to block a large number of popular Web sites, including weblogging, community, chat and email services.  Web (particularly weblog) use has been increasing rapidly in Iran, with 64000+ weblogs published by Iranians via various sites.  As of today, if the news is correct, the majority of these may be inaccessible to their authors, as will the email (eg. Yahoo) services they use to communicate with friends, colleagues and family worldwide.  See stop.censoring.us and hoder.com for more details.  The newly expanded blocks include PersianBlog, Blogger and the Google-hosted Orkut ‘social networking’ site, where Iranians come third after Brazil and USA, representing 7% of all users.  How can we get our Iranian friends back in the Web?”

Way down in the comments following this piece, however, by a poster named “bahamat” (whose blog Digital Elf is here), comes a part of the answer in this little gem:

I'm the sr. sysadmin for Anonymizer and we have a contract with VOA to provide free proxy service to Iran.

It's based off of PrivateSurfing (which you can try out for free at the Anonymizer [anonymizer.com] homepage, sorry you can't surf /. with it… Rob hates me).  Added features for the Iran proxy is full time SSL, URL encryption, Farsi language support, and we switch the proxy website about once a month (every time the Iranian government blocks us).  We perform checks on the service from within Iran to see if our site is actually blocked (yes, it works), and we maintain a database of all known e-mail addresses that we can detect as being located in Iran.  Every time we switch the proxy site we send an e-mail informing them of the new free proxy location so the citizens of Iran can find it.  The sites are also broadcast via radio and TV into Iran by the VOA.  To be honest, we're usually about a day behind the blocks, due mostly to time zone differences.

The systems that run the Iran proxies are dedicated and used quite heavily.  Much more than any of the servers that we have for everything else.  The loadav is pretty high, and we're working on upgrading them in the next few months to increase capacity.

Most of our customers are under NDA so I don't mention where I work much, but the VOA [anonymizer.com] is one of our very few public contracts due to it's anti-censorship nature.

This is terrific, I believe, and a wonderful way for Iranian and other seekers after freedom and democracy to circumvent mullah and other tyrannical rulers' attempted thought-constriction of the Internet.  I wondered for a while if the posting was legitimate, but eventually noticed the Anonymizer press release bahamat points to above, which details the arrangement the company has with the Voice of America (notice the date on it, the day the Voice of America contract was let: 2003-09-11!).  Following is an excerpt from that press release:

SAN DIEGO, Calif., Sept 11, 2003 – Anonymizer, Inc., a leading provider of anonymous Web surfing and online privacy protection, today announced new anti-censorship Web proxy services in Iran, enabling people to bypass government filtering and access information sources, including political and religious content.  Currently, about two million citizens in Iran have Web access.  Anonymizer has provided similar services to other countries, including China, with extremely positive results.

Iranian government officials blacklist forbidden sites that, for instance due to political and religious content, are considered dangerous.  The United States International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB, www.ibb.gov) is funding the effort in their partnership with Anonymizer to utilize their core technology.

The way it works is that Anonymizer sends bulk e-mails and daily newsletters to the Iranian citizens addresses that are provided by human rights organizations.  The IBB, in support of the Voice Of America Persian Service (VOA, www.voanews.com) and Radio Farda (www.radiofarda.com), are sponsoring the effort to provide this easily accessible service.  The generic URLs for the anti-censorship services are publicized over the Radio Farda and VOA Persian broadcasts.  The URLs are changed when they become blocked by the Iranian Government, so that Iranian citizens can continue to get unfiltered, unblocked local and world news.

“The links to the service provided within the emails point to either the VOA or Radio Farda sites, but they can go anywhere on the Internet,” said Ken Berman, program manager for Internet Anti-censorship activities at the IBB.  “Dissident sites, religious sites, the L.L. Bean catalog — they are free to explore the Internet as they wish, in an unfettered fashion.”

“By providing a means for these people to visit the sites that are blocked by their government while remaining anonymous, we're making the Internet a safer place as well as offering the freedoms that they should be afforded,” said Lance Cottrell, president and founder of Anonymizer.  “This project brings forth the full potential of the Internet bringing free speech and democracy to the world.”

Back in the Slashdot thread, a couple of replies by other commenters are worthy of note.  One replied:

I just want to say, your post is probably the coolest thing I've read on slashdot in a long time.  Every single story like this turns into a gigantic flamefest that has nothing to do with the original topic, and it's incredibly annoying.  Your post shows that the occasional nugget of gold can be found.  It's wonderful to see that there's someone here who's actively involved in helping people work around these kinds of restrictions, and it's great to hear that your services are so heavily used.  Keep up the good work!

I certainly agree with that.  Another commenter asked:

Well done!  Keep on the good work.  Anyway we can help?

Whereupon, bahamat replied:

Since you asked, yes, you can buy something [anonymizer.com].  I hate to feel like I'm pimping products here, but the more revenue we have in accross the board helps to improve all services, consumer, enterprise and anti-censorship proxies.

Anonymizer 2005 is $30/yr, which works out to be about $2.20/mo
Total Net Shield is $100/yr, which works out to be about $8/mo.

Personally, I like TNS the best, and I use it at home.

I hate to pimp services as well, but bahamat's right about that.  (Note that I have no connection with Anonymizer.com, the VOA, or CIA for that matter.  But then disclaiming it proves it, right?)


UPDATE:  2009-09-30 13:00 UT:  Boing Boing's Guide to Defeating Censorware has quoted and linked to this piece (as explained here), as also has the Chinese GFW Blog.  Another mention in BoingBoing occurs here and here.


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