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Falun Gong helped (in the past) to break Iran throttlehold on Internet.

According to a recent report published by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Iranian regime is one of the leading Internet censors in the world; but international consortiums have now produced several programs designed to help evade regime censors.

The April 30 report listed the top 10 Internet censors, beginning with Burma and including: Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Egypt, China, Vietnam, Cuba and Turkmenistan. Of the 10, six have majority Muslim populations.

According to the CPJ report, "Authorities [in Iran] regularly detain or harass bloggers who write critically about religious or political figures, the Islamic revolution, and its symbols. The government requires all bloggers to register their websites with the Ministry of Culture.

More than 20 countries now use Internet blocking technology, according to the Paris-based free press organization Reporters Without Borders. But anti-censorship groups have begun creating programs to help evade regime censors.

Last July, a computer program appeared on sites that offer free downloads of software. The program, which was developed by the Global Internet Freedom Consortium--based largely in the United States and closely affiliated with suppressed Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong--allowed Internet users to dodge government censors. The group used a series of computers in data centers internationally to route web users' requests around censors' firewalls.

College students in Iran discovered the program, then spread it through e-mail messages and file-sharing. By late fall more than 400,000 Iranians had access to the uncensored web, The New York Times reported.

The consortium is one of many small groups developing systems to make it possible to evade Internet censors.

But the Falun Gong software proved too popular with Iranians. By the end of last year the anti-censorship group's computers were overloaded and, on January 1, the consortium shut down the service for Iran and all other countries except China.

There are other groups, however, that provide similar services. The Tor Project, a nonprofit group of anticensorship activists, freely offers software that can be used to send covert messages or to reach forbidden websites. Its software, first developed at the United States Naval Research Laboratories, is now used by more than 300,000 people worldwide.

Political scientists at the University of Toronto have built their own system, called Psiphon, which allows people to evade national Internet firewalls using only a web browser. The United States government and the Voice of America have also financed some circumvention technology efforts.

Initially, the Falun Gong--which experts say has devoted the most resources to the cause--had some financial backing from the International Broadcasting Bureau of the Voice of America. But the group claims most of its efforts have been based on volunteer labor and contributions.

The consortium's program evades censorship systems that block access to certain Internet Protocol addresses, which identify a website. By clicking on a link provided in the consortium's e-mail message, users trying to reach a forbidden website can download software that connects to a remote computer abroad that then redirects the request to the forbidden site's address.

Aware of such programs, government systems search out and shut off these alternative routes; but the software is continuously changing the Internet address of the remote computer, so that by the time the censors identify an address, the system has already changed it.

As a result of Falun Gong lobbying last year, the U.S. Congress approved $15 million for circumvention services. But the money was awarded not to the Falun Gong consortium but to Internews, an international organization that supports local media groups.

This year, a broader coalition is organizing to lobby for more congressional financing. Negotiations are under way to bring together dissidents from Iran, Vietnam, the Uighurs of China, Tibet, Myanmar, Cuba, Cambodia, Laos, as well as the Falun Gong, to lobby Congress for the financing.
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Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Date:May 15, 2009
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