Today, pro-government Iranians took to streets in Tehran and possibly other cities in a show of support for the Ahmadinejad government and for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. A report by CNN spoke of hundreds of thousands of people in Tehran alone and perhaps thousands more in “Tabriz, Shiraz, Arak, Gilan and Sistan-Baluchestan province.”
According to CNN, protesters chanted slogans against Mir Hossein Mousavi, America, Britain, France, Israel and the Green Movement’s protests on Sunday – Ashura. However, the CNN report while accurate in most respects, failed to mention some very key facts about the protests; facts that would show the true nature of the protests.
For starters, the CNN report and some other media reports do not mention the fact that dozens of Buses chartered by the Iranian government ran non-stop from villages and suburbs around Tehran and other cities, bringing in government supporters in hordes to the protest venues. The buses began their operation the day before, ensuring the protest looked large enough.
These protesters were then later dispatched to their homes outside Tehran and other cities by the same buses. So what seemed like tens of thousands of Tehranis was in reality a mix of Tehranis and non-Tehranis brought in specifically for the purpose of fooling the world into believing that Tehran and other cities fully supports Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.
And while government-run media claimed millions and CNN claimed hundreds of thousands and that Tehran was ‘packed’ with protesters, independent analyses show that the protest in Tehran was composed of no more than 20,000 people.
Secondly, they fail to mention the fact that the protesters were offered free refreshments at the expense of the government to keep them there and to boost their morale. Their banners, slogans and even the declaration they released denouncing the opposition was written, prepared and handed over to them by the government. Protesters received all their material needs from the government from the minute they boarded the buses to the minute they got back home.
Even so, the enthusiasm that Green Movement supporters show when they are out protesting was non-existent during this protest. People had simply brought their whole families out for a day out on the streets after being prepped up by the government to counter the popular movement that is shaking the core of the Islamic Republic.
And even the government’s own media announced that there were no protests in some of the other large cities. Mashhad, the second largest city saw almost nothing. Neither did Isfahan, the third largest city. And there was no independent confirmation of protests from the cities that the government-run media reported.
Finally, there was no riot police, Basij or IRGC members out with batons, cables, pepper spray, tear gas and bullets to disperse the people or stop them from chanting and gathering. Compare this to the millions of people who marched onto streets in June or the hundreds of thousands that marched on Sunday in the face of brutal repression and a government ban on their protests and you will clearly see the desperate attempts by the Iranian government to make the world believe it has significant support among the populace.
If the government lifts bans on opposition protests, does not cut off telecommunication systems to disrupt planning, does not arrests hundreds and kill dozens, then we’ll see millions out on Iran’s streets every day.
The truth is, if the government did have support among the people, the crowds on Ashura would have been split between the Green Movement and the supporters of the Islamic Republic. On that day, it was an overwhelming show of support for reform and a clear rejection of the Islamic Republic – plain and simple. The ‘Tehranis’ the government showed the world today were huddled up in small pockets on that day or sitting at home in their villages, watching government propaganda on TV.
Protests like today’s may make the government feel a bit less insecure about its prospects of survival, but it is in no way going to change the resolve of the Iranian people or the perception of the government’s brutality and weakness in the minds of foreigners.
The events of the Iranian election in June had us unrepentant Twitter addicts enthralled. With traditional media controlled by the government, the opposition organized using mobile phones and the Internet. As never before, the whole world could cheer alongside protesters demanding their rights while sharing in the terror and heartbreak of seeing them brutally crushed — all in real time, on Twitter and YouTube.
Outraged at seeing a movement and a generation muzzled, a group of us got together and started developing anti-censorship tools. We believe everyone, everywhere should be able to freely communicate. The system we designed, “Haystack,” provides completely uncensored access. There are no more Facebook blocks, no more government warning pages when trying to read BBC news — just unfiltered Internet. It’s an improvement to the state of the art in anti-censorship technology. It’s a necessary one too: Iran’s filtering is quite advanced, and it’s one of two countries to censor the Internet using domestic hardware and software. (The other is China.) Imagine a postal service that opens each piece of mail and uses machine learning algorithms to detect subversive correspondence. That’s Iranian digital censorship.
This kind of filtering is called “deep packet inspection.” It allows the government to block, read, and even change messages sent over the Internet, including emails and tweets. Iran purchased equipment from Western companies like Nokia and Siemans for this censorship, and is rapidly deploying homegrown equivalents over which it can exert more control.
Still, we were able to identify weaknesses in Iran’s approach and develop countermeasures. On a tecnología-e-tecnología basis, censors will always lose as long as any information at all can get out.
After coding night and day since the election we tested a beta version of Haystack in early July by bouncing traffic through Iran. It worked. When we saw that the government had improved its filtering methods in preparation for the Qods Day celebration in September, we were briefly worried. But we couldn’t help but cheer as Haystack cut through even the improved filtering. We couldn’t have been more excited.
In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been surprised. Traditional anti-censorship systems divert blocked traffic to servers located outside of the country. Haystack goes one step further: it uses innovative techniques to make blocked traffic look benign, rendering a user’s activity virtually undetectable. Haystack also has a cryptographic component which ensures that our users’ communications remain safe even if detected. The only way to block Haystack, we like to say, is to shut down the internet.
Deploying Haystack has hardly been a walk in the park, however. The problems are not merely technical. Under United States law, one can be put in jail for ten years just for sending an iPod to Iran. The legal clearance necessary to distribute Haystack has been a tall hurdle to jump. We’ve shuttled back and forth to Washington, D.C, and from coast to coast. We’ve written dozens of pages worth of legal forms and, because we’re committed to a sustained effort to end censorship, we’ve even founded a non-profit, the Censorship Research Center, through which we hope to tackle the filtering schemes of other countries as well.
There is something strangely ironic about the events that brought us to this point. We learned about Iran through Tweets, YouTube videos, and photos posted on Facebook. These same media which we are told pull people apart, away from the personal contacts that make life meaningful, brought us closer to a people, and a movement that we would have not otherwise known. These same media that were supposed to create a generation of apathy, in fact, gave a generation its voice. The courage displayed by the Iranian people inspired us to help them, and to help others. We refuse to allow their courage and the courage of those like them to be in vain.
Sorry I’ve been AFK on the blog front lately. I know it looks quiet, but that certainly doesn’t reflect what’s going on behind the scenes. So, here’s a quick recap of what’s happened, what’s going on, and what’s to come.
Also, I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone who has made this project possible. From the Twitter support, to the incredibly supportive donations, to private organizations volunteering, people donating their time in real life to help this come together — I’m just amazed at the willingness of people to come together to make this project a success <3
Weeks before Haystack was even announced, we were feverishly working out the technical details, trying to layout what the network would look like, and procuring the first servers we would test our anonymous, anti-censorship tool for Iran with.
A few days after it was announced, we realized that the tech side wasn’t the hardest part. As the Iranian government cracked down on citizens and stepped up Internet filtering, the new challenge would be distribution. We needed to get people together — and fast — to figure out how both parts of the Haystack network would roll out. So we reached out for the first time to the Internet & Twitter to make sure this could happen — and support Haystack you did! Less than a week later we had our first successful test of Haystack from inside of Iran.
The dialogue that came out of our meet-up propelled Haystack beyond my wildest expectations. Since then, we’ve been putting the parts of the plan that came out of that dialogue in place.
On the Haystack front we’ve been building out capacity, testing the network, improving on the Haystack protocol, and meeting with specialists to review our strategy and network security principles. On the organizational front, there’s a non-profit being formed! This will serve to provide the necessary support and legal structure around Haystack. In the future we hope to support human rights and free speech with technology throughout the world. While very exciting, this adds lawyers, banks, accountants, and a whole bunch of other things into the mix. And a huge thanks to everyone donating their time, energy, and hard earned money to make this possible.
Then there’s the PayPal fiasco…
On Monday, I got a notice from PayPal saying that my account was under review and they needed some clarification for what it was for. Great, that’s fine! So I faxed over a letter stating what I was working on, and pointing them to relevant media about Haystack and my past work in the Iran election technology circle.
Somehow they decided that meant I wanted to have my account changed to non-profit status and asked for proof. I call them up and, after getting transfered four times, am told that there’s a problem with the account being in compliance of these laws that pertain to non-profit, tax exempt organizations. Wha? We never represented to paypal or any donors that we were already non-profit. I explain what I’m doing and the service rep tells me I have 14 days to provide documentation to prove the 501(c)(3) status of a non-profit that does not yet exist. We’ve been moving so quickly to get everything done, but changing how quickly the government grants non-profit status is one thing that is totally our of our hands.
So much has happened and yet so little time has gone by.
In the upcoming weeks as we continue to test the platform, we’ll also be gearing up for the launch of Haystack 1.0 and introducing our non-profit more formally, so stay tuned. If you’re going to the rallies in San Francisco or Los Angeles (and possible NYC!), swing by the Haystack booth and say hi!