A pact between the U.S. government and the electronic privacy company Anonymizer, Inc. is making the Internet a safer place for controversial websites and subversive opinions -- if you're Iranian.
This month Anonymizer began providing Iranians with free access to a Web proxy service designed to circumvent their government's online censorship efforts. In May, government ministers issued a blacklist of 15,000 forbidden "immoral" websites that ISPs in the country must block -- reportedly a mix of adult sites and political news and information outlets. An estimated two million Iranians have Internet access.
Among the banned sites are the website for the U.S.-funded Voice of America broadcast service, and the site for Radio Farda, another U.S. station that beams Iranian youth a mix of pop music and westernized news. Both stations are run by the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), the U.S. government's overseas news and propaganda arm.
The U.S. responded to the filtering this month by paying Anonymizer (neither the IBB nor Anonymizer will disclose how much) to create and maintain a special version of the Anonymizer proxy which only accepts connections from Iran's IP address space, and features instructions in Farsi.
The deliberately generic-sounding URLs for the service are publicized over Radio Farda broadcasts and through bulk e-mails that Anonymizer sends to addresses in the country. The addresses are provided by human rights groups and other sources, says Anonymizer president Lance Cottrell.
"We're providing a system whereby the people in the countries that are suffering Internet censorship can bypass the government filtering and access all the pages that are blocked," says Cottrell.
The services' navigation boxes default to Radio Farda or Voice of America, but surfers are invited to put in any address they like, and browse free of the Iranian government's filtering.
"Dissident sites, religious sites, the L.L. Bean catalog -- we point them to the Voice of America site, but they can go anywhere," says Ken Berman, program manager for Internet anticensorship at the IBB, "They're free explore the Internet in an unfettered fashion."
Mostly unfettered. Like the Iranian filters, the U.S. service blocks porn sites -- "There's a limit to what taxpayers should pay for," says Berman. But the United States' hope is that a freer flow of online information will improve America's image in the Arab world. The service is similar to one Anonymizer provided to Chinese citizens under a previous government contract that ran-out ended earlier this year.
Cottrell and Berman agree that it's only a matter of time before the Iranonymity service winds on the official blacklist. But Berman hints that the U.S. is ready for a prolonged electronic shell game with Tehran. "In China we're continually monitoring the state of the proxy, and when we see the traffic drop off, we change the proxy's address, usually within 24 hours," says Berman. "In Iran, we're prepared to change the proxy address every day if necessary."
A bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives last month would create an Office of Global Internet Freedom that would have up to a $50 million annual budget to help citizens of foreign repressive governments skirt Internet censorship.