Reviews Books Published 3 October 2012

#403 Forbidden

26 September 2012

A hands on experience of Iranian censorship.

Carmel Doohan

Upon entering Small media‘s Euston offices, we are told we will need to have our ID’s photographed and that some internet sites will be filtered or blocked in accordance with the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

For one night only, the charity have turned their office into both an interactive exhibition and an Iranian internet cafe. They are asking us to imagine a country where you have tickets for Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler but the show is suddenly banned because the authorities deem it ‘vulgar’ and ‘hedonistic’; a world where you have no hope of publishing or distributing your work because it doesn’t espouse revolutionary or pro-government ideals and a place where you could be arrested, tortured or imprisoned for using gay websites.

In the small office, two Macs are connected to the Iranian internet and beside them sits a table full of post-it notes bearing the names of various websites. Our job is to find out which ones are filtered or blocked and hang them up above the computers. The connection is painfully slow and even the unblocked sites take a long time to load and show error messages. Most human rights and western news organisations are banned, yet so are the sites for things such as Barbie and American Idol. The results are often arbitrary; is available but many other smaller LGBT sites are not. Until a short while ago, Middlesex University, Sussex University and were also banned due to a filtering system that used letter combinations  to decipher content.

 After google, yahoo and wikipedia, this is the fourth most viewed site in Iran:

Welcome to Owing to a recent change in the  governments censorship techniques, rather than a warning saying #403 forbidden, a blocked site now takes you this cheerful looking page. It recommends alternative options to the things you are looking for, invites you to post comments and is beginning to build up a community of people ready to write in and suggest other sites that should be banned or filtered.

Iran is a place of many fascinating statistics and Maral Pourkazemi uses Infographics to make such information accessible. Impressively designed, her infographics turn her research (and the contradictorary statistics she has uncovered) into patterns that are reminiscent of geometric Arabic tiles, incorporating Persian script and illustrations into the data.

One design shows the development of the National Internet Network or ‘halal’ internet. Said to have has has been in development since 2005, some sources say it will reach completion next year, leaving Iran cut off from all international websites. Other sources, however, dispute this and say the entire concept is simply scaremongering, used either to encourage people to use home-grown sites under national controll, or as a way for people in the west to damage the public perception of Iran. Whether talk of an entirely separate system is true or not, many people are now using the government controlled clone sites such as Ya-haq (literal translation: calling God) to replace google, and Iranian Web Mail will replace gmail.

Last week the Iranian government announced that Gmail and Google would be blocked (although an unsecured version – far easier to eavesdrop on – did remained unblocked), but this week the ban was lifted. The government seems to be caught in a difficult balancing act: it wants to restrict and control content but not impact negatively on the country’s economic or international relations. This balance is surely almost impossible to achieve and it is suggested that they are fighting a losing battle, as developers are finding more and more ways around such restrictions.

Small Media has invited Tor Project developer, Runa A. Sandvick and Briar‘s Michael Rogers to explain how such innovations work. The Tor project, originally designed to protect US Navy communications, is now used all over the world by activists, journalists and people who want to protect their privacy on the web. Briar is building a secure news and discussion platform that enables groups in authoritarian countries to communicate without  government interference and in the event of an internet shut down.

As we leave, we are surreptitiously slipped a tiny USB stick. This contains the Tor software and copies of Small Media’s latest reports on cultural censorship and LGBT rights. This is how such software is likely to be be distributed among friends inside Iran and it is an effective finishing touch. With the continuing fight against legislation such as SOPA and PIPA in the US and UK, this illuminating evening in ‘Iran’ serves to remind us of the access to information we currently take for granted, and how important it is to fight to keep it free.

Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.

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