Channeling Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech, President Obama has said that an "Electronic Curtain" is descending over Iran. The country's government continues to block Internet access for thousands of citizens.
But that's not stopping the U.S. State Department from using the Internet to engage with average Iranians.
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The administration believes that the Iranian people have a "universal right to access information" and to "freely assemble online," but Iran's leadership "denies these rights, and uses technology to suppress its people," according to a White House blog post.
Despite Iran's denial of those digital rights, the State Department believes it can still use the U.S.' techno-savvy to poke holes in Iran's Electronic Curtain. It's reaching out and connecting with average Iranians through an extensive digital outreach program, and it's also engaged in a technological competition with Iran, developing fresh tools to help Iranians connect to the Internet as Iran finds new ways to block access.
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Mashable spoke with the U.S. State Department to figure out how those two goals -- engaging Iranian citizens and ensuring they can access the full Internet and its troves of information -- are being achieved.
Engaging with Iranian Citizens
At the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, they're using a wide range of digital platforms to engage with Iranian citizens. A Facebook page, Twitter handle and a YouTube account have been active for two years. Recently, the Bureau hosted its first-ever Google+ hangout entirely in Persian Farsi.
"There was a strong reaction and we build a dedicated following [in Iran]," says Greg Sullivan, the State Department's senior advisor for strategic communications on Iran. Sullivan says his department's approach is about reaching out to Iranian citizens who aren't "part of the regime," people who they think "have had their voice taken away" by the Iranian government.
In October of last year, the State Department opened a "Virtual Embassy," an online destination where Iranians could learn more about the country in lieu of an actual embassy, since the U.S. hasn't had one in Iran since 1980.
"We needed an information headquarters -- a hub, if you will -- and the notion of 'Virtual Embassy Tehran' was born," says Sullivan. "It's information central for Iranians who need to know about the U.S., our policies, study opportunities and work visas. That’s the same service an actual brick-and-mortar embassy would provide, so we figured, 'why don’t we create a virtual embassy online?'"
Sullivan and his team first needed to convince the State Department's lawyers that they wouldn't be breaking any international treaties in the process of building the digital embassy. Once that hurdle was cleared, the Virtual Embassy was green-lighted and the doors opened.
And boy, did Iranians come: 350,000 visited in the first three months, even after Iran's government blocked it.
"What we hoped to see, and what we did see, was a spike in requests for the Persian-language site from countries where there is not a large Persian-speaking population," says Sullivan. "If we can get accurate info to [Iranian citizens] and help give them a voice, maybe it changes this whole dynamic. Maybe it puts pressure on this regime. In many ways, our efforts to reach out to people connects with our methods to put pressure on the regime."
Those requests told him that Internet users in Iran, where Persian Farsi is the dominant language, were using foreign proxies to bypass Iran's National Gateway and get to his site.
Sullivan says his outreach efforts are grounded in President Obama's two-track policy towards Iran: Punish the regime for the "poor choices" that it makes, but "hold out hope" for a solution through diplomatic means. By building an online connection with Iranians, Sullivan is hoping to generate the cross-cultural understanding on which diplomacy relies.
"We found online engagement to be a viable way to engage with Iranian citizens despite government limitations on Internet access," says Sullivan.
Getting Around the Filters
The Iranian government tries to clamp down on Internet access. All web traffic in the country has to pass through a "National Gateway," which then limits access to websites deemed off-limits by the government -- Facebook, YouTube, Gmail and Skype are all on that list.
So how do Internet-savvy Iranians to get around Iran's National Gateway? A bit of cleverness -- by using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and proxy servers located outside the country, Iranians can get around the government filters.
Circumventing the government's filters doesn't come without risk. The regime has a "cyber army" of up to 15,000 Internet "enforcers," and the government routinely spies on citizens' online behavior. Many Iranians continue to ignore the risk of government harassment and intimidation.
"We have heard that 40% of Iran's web traffic bypasses government filters," says Sullivan. "We estimate there are as many as 14 million Facebook users inside of Iran despite the fact that Facebook is one of five million or so sites blocked for use by Iranian Internet Service Providers."
To that end, the U.S. is actually responsible for developing many of the filter-circumvention tools used by Iranians and citizens of other less-than-open societies. According to Sullivan, the U.S. has spent over $70 million on "Internet freedom tools" that are known to be "safe, secure and effective" by people around the world. Sullivan estimates that at least one million people are using filter-bypassing tools designed in America.
Iran can't just shut down the Internet, either -- so much of the country's economic infrastructure is digital that flipping the switch to "off" would result in a financial loss of millions. The country suffers from a technology "brain drain." Many of Iran's sharpest minds leave to pursue better opportunities elsewhere -- like Silicon Valley. According to Sullivan, that makes it harder for Iran to outsmart citizens using VPNs and proxies to get around the Gateway.
They do, however, have a history of significantly slowing things down during politically charged events. And Iran is working on building a "National Intranet," an "Iran-only" network that will allow digital communication within the country while blocking outside access for an estimated 30 million Iranians.
Tear Down This Curtain
While Iran keeps trying to sew an Internet curtain thread-by-thread, Sullivan and the State Department will keep trying to poke holes through it. In the paraphrased words of Ronald Reagan, the administration's motto seems to be, "Mr. Ahmadinejad, tear down this curtain."
Do you think the State Department's efforts in reaching out to Iranian citizens will be effective? Let us know in the comments below.
This story originally published on Mashable here.