Thursday, July 02, 2009

Falun Gong helps crack Iran's web filter

By Desmond Ang for Radio Australia / ABC

Updated Thu Jul 2, 2009 1:32pm AEST

Neda Agha-Soltan was watching post-election protests in Tehran when she was shot in the chest.

Neda Agha-Soltan was watching post-election protests in Tehran when she was shot in the chest. (Reuters/Flickr)

Computer software invented to beat China's stringent internet controls is being used by pro-democracy activists in Iran to manoeuvre around authorities there.

Developed and managed by a team of volunteers from the Falun Gong spiritual group, Freegate was created to allow net users to bypass Beijing government censorship.

Now it is estimated as many as a million Iranians use the free service each day, as anti-government demonstrators take their protests online.

The death of Neda Agha Soltan, for example, would have been in vain had it not been for the Falun Gong and their desire to liberate internet surfing in Iran.

The 26-year old was observing post-election protests in the Iranian capital of Tehran when she was shot in the chest.

A passer-by recorded the scene and posted her dying moments on the YouTube hosting website, bringing global attention to a conflict the Iranian government was trying to muffle.

Iranian authorities had started blocking certain websites in the lead-up to the presidential elections.

Foreign news services, religious websites and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter were said to be on the blacklist.

But Iran's internet firewall proved futile against Freegate's software, which allows users to gain access to blocked sites by constantly switching different internet protocol (IP) addresses.

Bill Xia, the inventor of Freegate, told Radio Australia's Connect Asia program: "We're very happy to see our tools become very useful for people, especially for the people in Iran, where people cannot get their voice out."

Mr Xia says the number of users in Iran multiplied after Freegate was translated into Farsi.

"Last year, the traffic on our network is too high and we cannot sustain the cost," he said.

"So we actually start to limit the service, but last month we tried to open it to Iran to provide as much service as possible.

"Mostly it's from China and Iran, and they total to more than one million users per day."

Shiyu Zhou, deputy director of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, which developed the Freegate software, says: "The reason that we created this service was mainly due to the suppression of the Falun Gong in '99.

"Many of us were Tiananmen students during the Tiananmen massacre time in '89, so we knew how frightening state-controlled media can be, like in China, that can turn white into black overnight."

He says the software draws most visitors from closed societies such as China, Iran, Syria and Burma.

"People want to know what's going on, because people care about society, people care about other people and they want to know what exactly is happening," Mr Zhou said.

"They hunt for information over the internet because it has become an open platform, a multimedia platform, and the most powerful and widely used form of media."

The consortium recently released a software called Green Tsunami, to counteract China's coming mandatory internet filtering program, Green Dam.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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