How Governments Control The Flow Of Information

Pro-government demonstrators haven crowded into Tehran's streets to mark the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. While Iranian state television has broadcast images of the crowds, other forms of communication are reportedly being jammed. John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org describes how states can cut the flow of information to and from their citizens.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Hundreds of thousands of pro-government demonstrators took to the streets of Tehran today to mark the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. We know this because Iranian state television beamed images of crowds streaming toward a downtown square to hear a speech by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Many were carrying Iranian flags and pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

But while state television was broadcasting just fine, other forms of communication - text messaging, satellite television, parts of the Internet -are reportedly being jammed. In an age of cell phones, Twitter and Skype, how does a country shut down the flow of information in and out?

To help us understand, we're joined by John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a news and security Web site. He's with us on the phone from his office in Alexandria, Virginia.

Nice to have you back to the program, John.

Mr. JOHN PIKE (Director, GlobalSecurity.org): Yes. Good to be here.

CONAN: And to that question, John, how does Iran choke off nearly all electronic communications in and out of the country?

Mr. PIKE: Well, if you own the pipelines, if you own the central communications apparatus and all that stuff it's going to go through, it's just not that hard to do. And at the end of the day, all of these forms of communications have got to have some way of getting onto the global grid, and all of that's controlled one way or the other by the Iranian government.

CONAN: So those pipes, those cables are controlled by the government. They go through strict nodes, and there they can be interfered with?

Mr. PIKE: Somewhere along the line, they're going to have to go through a node that the government controls. And it's just not that difficult for the government to decide what's going to get through and what's not going to get through.

CONAN: Is this similar to what China does from time to time?

Mr. PIKE: Well, certainly, the concept is the same. That if you have a government that wants to control what people think, what people see, both inside the country and outside the country, you're going to set into place mechanisms for censorship. I mean, in the old days, all you had to do was control the post office. These days, you'll also have to control your Internet linkage, your teleports to get onto satellites and that sort of thing. But there are people who do this for a living. It's their job to make sure that the Iranian government, like the Chinese government, controls what people see happening in that country.

CONAN: I was asking about satellite transmissions. Those are controllable as well?

Mr. PIKE: Well, there's not a lot of stuff going via satellite these days simply because of that annoying time lag, even at the speed of light, it does take a finite amount of time to get up to geostationary orbit and back down again. So most of the sort of communications they would be interested in controlling are going to be going by fiber optic cable, and that does have to go through a central node.

And even for satellites, to have a dish big enough to transmit something up to the satellite, that's the sort of thing that the government, one way or the other, is going to control.

CONAN: And you have to ask a question about why now after the disputed presidential election last year. There were certainly a lot of images they would have preferred the world didn't see.

Mr. PIKE: Well, I think that they have decided that this has dragged on for far too long, that there was a danger that the demonstrations today would mark a decisive turning point. In these political protests, clearly they've decided to take harsher measures against the demonstrators than they have taken thus far, and I think they would just as soon not have pictures of that suppression be broadcast around the world.

CONAN: At that moment, they were - the United States government said it was helping Twitter stay on - it was going to shut down for a maintenance, I think, and they helped Twitter decide to stay on in order to keep the messages flowing. Are there ways for people outside of Iran, whoever they may be, to work backdoors and get information in and out?

Mr. PIKE: Well, certainly, there's going to be some seepage, there'll be some leakage. You're going to have videos that have been recorded smuggled out. So eventually, they are going to be able to put the pictures to the world, get some B-roll to form a more dramatic impression that then simply talking about it today. But that's going to take time. And by then, the moment will have passed and the heads will have been cracked and people will have been rounded up.

CONAN: B-roll is that imagery that you see on the television news behind whatever the news readers is saying.

Mr. PIKE: Whatever it is the news reader is reading. That's the part that's dramatic. To say that there was a person standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square is one thing, to see a picture of that person standing in front of the tank is another, and then to see the video of the tank moving is another thing indeed. And it's that dramatic visual impression - not trying to detract from the value of radio - that they're trying to control.

CONAN: Thank you very much for that last homage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Appreciate it. It's also to be noted that most foreign correspondents has been precluded from being inside Iran at this particular moment.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, thanks very much for your time.

Mr. PIKE: Thank you so much.

CONAN: And he joined us today on the phone from his office in Alexandria, Virginia.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY with guest Jane Goodall. We'll talk to you again on Monday. Have a great weekend, everybody.

I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News in Washington.

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