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Interview: Helping Iranians Beat Internet Censorship

Haystack has been designed with Internet users in Iran in mind.
Haystack has been designed with Internet users in Iran in mind.
Iran has one of the most draconian Internet censorship regimes in the world.

But recently, the San Francisco-based Censorship Research Center says the U.S. government has approved the export of antifiltering software designed to help Iranians defy the censors. The center has developed "Haystack," software that lets web users access filtered websites such as Facebook and YouTube -- sites that have served as important communications tools for Iranians following last year's disputed presidential vote.

Twenty-six-year-old Austin Heap, the director of the center, tells RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari that his organization has been distributing software to Iranians since March 19, when the license was issued. The group had to apply for the license because U.S. sanctions against Iran mean most exports to the country are banned unless they're approved by the Treasury Department.

RFE/RL: How are you planning to distribute the Haystack software to Iranians?

Austin Heap:
There's a handful of ways that we can go about exporting the Haystack software. The easiest way is just by distributing it to people securely online. But you can do everything from ship it there to put it on a website for people to download, to e-mail it.

It's pretty easy to do the exporting thing. We started on March 19.

RFE/RL: Do you know how many people have already downloaded it and used it?

We do, but we are not releasing any data yet on our network, because we're trying to protect the users. It's going well and we may release some numbers in the next months or so but as of right now we're not releasing any data on the size of the network.

RFE/RL: How is Haystack different from other filtering software?

The biggest difference between other filtering software and Haystack is that not only does Haystack encrypt the data and protect the user -- like most software does -- but it actually hides that data, the encrypted data can make it very difficult to even detect that you're using the software in the first place.

A lot of other software, when you look at it, if you're actually watching the stream of data flowing between the user and the Internet, with traditional antifiltering software that data looks encrypted, it's easy for an onlooker to tell that you're doing something, in the case of Iran that's banned by the government.

Freeing Iran's Internet

RFE/RL: The Iranian government has proven that it is technically savvy and very sophisticated when it comes to filtering or tracking people online. How likely it is that they could find ways to block Haystack or track those who are using it?

I think it would be insanely difficult to detect who is using Haystack. It was built in a way to evade that detection. Is Haystack unblockable? Nothing is unblockable, but at the same time there is no way to completely filter the Internet.

If you look at countries around the world, Cuba, China, or Iran, all three use different filtering systems and there's a way around all of them. From a purely technical standpoint you can't permanently censor the Internet and you can't permanently keep it open.

We were confidant though that this will allow people to get around Internet filtering in Iran. However, it would be naive of us to say that it's completely unblockable because you can always just turn the Internet off and then none of this software work.

RFE/RL: The Internet is painfully slow in Iran. Doesn't it make it difficult for people to download Haystack?

The actual Haystack software is very small. When we were building it we kept that in mind, so that people with the painfully slow Internet, which I agree [is the case] -- there are days when we're working on servers that we have there and it's just amazing how slow it is -- but Haystack itself is small and was designed to be used in a low-bandwidth or a slow-network environment.

RFE/RL: You said you've been distributing Haystack since March 19. What kind of feedback have you received so far?

Primarily the feedback that we've been receiving is that people want more copies than we've been able to provide. Every single person who has joined the network requires additional resources from our end, so we're just trying to meet the demands as fast as possible.

RFE/RL: I read that you've received online warnings and death threats and your blog has been filtered because of the work you're doing. Who is behind it, do you think?

I have no idea. I have Internet stalkers now. I have really no idea who these people are. It's easier to just ignore it.

RFE/RL: Why and how did you decide to fight Internet censorship in Iran?

It's not just Iran-specific for our organization. Thirty-one percent of the world lives under some type of government-imposed Internet filtering. That's hundreds of millions of people who have the same problem, if you're talking about China, Venezuela, Cuba.

Iran just happens to be a country where Internet filtering is very pervasive and we hope that we can through technology allow people to have their basic human right of free speech without fear of retaliation. It's not just Iran for us; it is a whole host of countries around the world who are using the Internet as a tool of silencing people.

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