For Iranians, Freedom Begins And Ends With An Open Internet

Freeing Iran: In their battle against the oppressive mullahs, Iran's protesters have one powerful weapon: the internet. Unfortunately, the government knows this and is systematically closing down apps it believes pose a threat, and selectively disrupting internet service. The U.S. should do all it can to keep Iran's digital window open.

[ibd-display-video id=2848215 width=50 float=left autostart=true] The internet has become a formidable weapon in the Iranian people's fight for freedom. It gives those who oppose Iran's terror-supporting regime a way to communicate with others, share ideas and even organize opposition.

A report out just this Wednesday from the Center for Human Rights in Iran ( CHRI ) notes that the regime's increasing technological sophistication is helping it crack down on dissent.

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"The Iranian government has now shown the world that it can - and will - cut its citizens off from the global internet, in total disregard for the rights of the Iranian people," said Hadi Ghaemi, CHRI's executive director, in his group's 76-page report, "Guards at the Gate."

The government has responded brutally to the popular street demonstrations that broke out last month, rounding up, imprisoning and even murdering the uprising's leaders. The government's clampdown has been aided by its closure of web apps and social media platforms popular with protesters, such as Instagram and Telegram.

The job has been made easier by Iran's government-controlled National Internet Network (NIN), a national network that promised improved speed and service, but that has turned into something far more sinister: An attempt to disconnect Iran's national internet service from the global internet, to turn Iran into a virtual internet island that only the regime controls.

The strategy is working. In late December, Iran's regime - alarmed at the sudden surge in anti-government demonstrations in the nation's streets - abruptly cut off internet service to keep protesters from communicating with one another and the outside. And, in recent days, it has continued to restrict access to outside apps that might make it possible for protesters to talk and strategize, including Telegram, which by one estimate has 40 million users in Iran.

Iran's supposedly moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who helped build Iran's internet system, has shown he cares little about free speech. "Many Iranians serve long prison sentences for online communications disapproved of by the state," the CHRI report noted. "State-sponsored DDos (denial of service) attacks, phishing, malware, and message interception have all increased during Rouhani's tenure."

Besides, even if he wanted to, Rouhani could do nothing beyond what little Iran's hard-line, unelected, fundamentalist Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei wants. Iran's "democracy" is a sham.

That's why it's important for the U.S. to help Iran's demonstrators maintain access to a free and open internet.

So far, President Trump - in sharp contrast to President Obama who, during the 2009 Green Revolution, kept quiet to get a nuclear deal with Iran - has voiced loud, unequivocal support for the Iranian demonstrators. That's been a tremendous morale booster and clearly puts the mullahs on notice.

But the demonstrators need more than just vocal support; the U.S. needs to help keep access to the global internet open.

Already, Iranian dissidents use virtual private networks and innovative products like Toosheh, which lets Iranians download data, documents and even video programming from the internet using a thumb-drive and a TV set-top satellite tuner, the kind found in many Iranian homes.

Unfortunately, as retired Army Major General Bruce Lawlor, who served as the first chief of staff of the Department of Homeland Security, argued recently , the U.S. government isn't doing enough to fund "U.S. technologies that help people in closed societies circumvent censorship."

Lawlor cites, as an example, the software program UltraSurf. It has allowed millions to circumvent control by authoritarian governments, whether it's Iran, China, North Korea or Cuba.

UltraSurf, which was in part funded by the U.S. government, already has two million Iranian users, and daily hits from Iran to the website total close to a billion. Yet, the U.S. backed off of its financial support for the program during the Obama years, due to objections from China. And the U.S. State Department still doesn't want to fund it.

"So despite the increasing demand for UltraSurf's tool, despite congressional calls for money to develop exactly this type of firewall circumvention technology, and despite President Trump's full-throated support for Iranian protesters, UltraSurf's servers are unable to meet the demand for want of roughly $3 million, a rounding error in federal spending, to scale up its capacity," Lawlor wrote.

This is plainly foolish.

Iran is at a tipping point. Average Iranians have not benefited from the nuclear deal the mullahs cynically signed with Obama, then cheated on. The Iranian economy is struggling, with high unemployment and soaring inflation. Because of this, "The Iran uprising of 2017 is the biggest challenge Iran's theocracy has ever faced," As Alireza Nader, a senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corp., blogged this week .

The U.S. can help to turn that challenge into a victory for the people of Iran with a few simple steps: Tightening sanctions on Iran's regime and the companies that support it; by providing more money for technologies such as UltraSurf; and by President Trump using his bully Twitter-pulpit to sound off about the Iran regime's repression of its own people.

"Ultimately, only Iranians can change Iran," wrote Rand's Nader. "But the Trump administration could increase U.S. leverage by rescinding the travel ban against Iranians, by providing satellite internet to Iran's struggling activists, and by increasing support and funding for human rights efforts."

As we found out during the Cold War, strong U.S. support, unbiased news and access to information can make all the difference, emboldening dissidents to overthrow tyrants. Today in Iran, in the digital age, that's no less true.


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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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