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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Tehran seeking new ways to censor the Internet and track dissidents

RSF:More sites banned, overhaul of filtering system planned

Reporters Without Borders today accused the Iranian government of seeking to increase its control of the Internet in recent measures that have included contracting an Iranian company, Delta Global, to set up a new online censorship system.

While developing a woefully oppressive model of Internet management, Iran is participating actively in international talks about Internet governance that are being held as part of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the press organisation said.

“These new measures point to an ideological hardening in the Iranian government and a desire by the new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to centralise authority,” Reporters Without Borders said. “They also show that factions exist within the conservatives, as the latest website to be banned, Baztab.com, is run by supporters of the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.”

“We are also worried by statements coming from the company that seems to have been given the job of managing Iran’s Internet filters,” the press freedom organisation added. “If what this company’s chief executive turns out to be correct, online surveillance and censorship is to be stepped up. This is very bad news for Iranian bloggers and Internet users.”

The head of Delta Global, Rahim Moazemi, told the local news agency ISNA in late September that his company had won a government contract for the management of the Internet control and censorship system. He said he wanted to put an end to “the anarchy of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs)” by centralising the filtering system. He also claimed that Delta Global’s technology was capable of blocking access to all the tools used to get round censorship.

Iranian filtering currently uses the “smart filter” technology developed by the US company Secure Comuting, which claims the Iranian authorities never paid to license this software. Iranian Internet censorship is not homogenous and varies according to the ISP used, of which Iran has several hundred. So a website may be accessible in one city and blocked in another.

Access to at least four websites that include coverage of Iranian women’s issues - www.womeniniran.org, http://irwomen.com, www.iftribune.com and www.womeniw.com - has been blocked since the start of September. Those in charge of these sites have reacted by launching an online petition at : www.petitiononline.com/mod_perl/signed.cgi ?womeno .

A court meanwhile on 12 October “provisionally” banned the news website Baztab.com although it belongs to former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohssen Rezai, a supporter of Ayatollah Khamenei, and is supposed to be backed by the Iranian intelligence services.

Baztab published reports that were embarrassing for the president. The site’s editor, Foad Sadeghi, said it was banned as a result of a complaint by the secretariat of the High Council for National Security about its articles on the nuclear negotiations that are currently under way.

The ban points to internal struggles within the conservative camp, between President Ahmadinejad’s supporters and those still loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei. It seems that the president, with the support of the military, is trying to take control of the internal state apparatus and impose his mentor, Ayatollah Mesbah, as Khamenei’s successor.

During the preparatory meetings for the WSIS (which is to take place in Tunis on 16-18 November), Iran called for a “new model” of Internet governance that would put an end to the existing US hegemony.

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