Activists call on U.S. to provide unfettered Internet access to Iranian citizens

Certain software tools could protect users' identities and the information they access to provide a range of news stories and opinions, not just American perspectives.

As violence flares in Tehran over the apparent reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Obama administration should help Iranian citizens obtain unfettered Internet access through distributed networks, some civil liberties activists advised.

Iranians outraged over allegations of vote rigging reportedly have been text messaging each other to organize impromptu rallies in support of the defeated reformist candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi. But the conservative government has been periodically shutting down access to social-networking services, according to multiple news sources.

"There's actually quite a bit of expertise within the State Department and within Voice of America" in fighting online censorship, said Danny O'Brien, international outreach coordinator at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. The organization works to defend free speech on the Internet.

The government-funded Voice of America broadcasting service supports the use of anti-censorship software called Tor, he noted. "This sort of software is very resilient against any type of censorship," and could be used as a backdoor in the event of a service disruption, O'Brien added.

The free software distributes a user's communications across a roundabout, volunteer-operated network. Data packets on the network move through multiple relays at random, making it difficult to pinpoint where the data originated or where it is headed. The approach can prevent surveillants from identifying a user's online behavior and physical location.

According to the Tor Web site, the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau, which operates Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia, promotes the technology as a means of sharing global perspectives with people who are blocked by foreign firewalls or are under the surveillance of repressive regimes.

O'Brien recommends that the U.S. government, during the post-election unrest, provide tools such as Tor, "so that Iranians can see a full width of opinions . . . rather than just trying to get the State Department's [angle] on these things."

"I think that it's very easy for groups to discredit messages that come from the American government exclusively," he added. "The best thing [for the United States] to do is to provide connectivity to the full range of opinions out there."

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said on Monday that the United States is closely watching events unfold in Iran and is "deeply troubled" by reports of voting irregularities. He specifically mentioned concerns about reported Internet blockages.

"As the president indicated last week, the enthusiasm and robust debate these elections engendered captured the attention of the world, and the essential right of people to express themselves peacefully needs to be respected," Kelly added.

In an interview with Nextgov, State Department spokeswoman Megan Mattson noted that the Iranian people were among the larger foreign populations to register for text message updates during the president's June 4 speech in Cairo on Muslim relations.

But U.S. officials are unlikely to be interacting with voters through social networking at this time, she said. "I don't imagine that we've been actively trying to engage them in any way via Twitter or anything like that," Mattson said, referring to the blast text-message service that reformists have been using to assemble demonstrators.

Officials at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a public interest organization that encourages open access to the Internet, said the group does not have a position on whether the U.S. government should use the Web to engage Iranian voters, in particular. But Leslie Harris, the center's president and chief executive officer, said the United States should use social media to engage U.S. citizens on matters of U.S. policy, and reach out to people worldwide, in general.