ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging, once again, an opposition movement is relying on the Internet to organize itself and to get its message out. The Iranian government has tried to restrict Internet access, but why not just turn it off completely?
As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, that is easier said than done.
MARTIN KASTE: If you wanted to control the Internet, you'd probably try to do it from a place like this.
(Soundbite of office)
KASTE: This is the office of Daniel Schwalbe, senior security engineer for the University of Washington in Seattle. It's a dark cubbyhole lit up by the four flatscreens attached to his computer. But what really matters is the fiber optic cables coming into the sub-basement under his feet.
Mr. DANIEL SCHWALBE (Senior Security Engineer, University of Washington): For all intents and purposes, this is the main hub where things come into the university.
KASTE: So let's say - let's say tomorrow, University of Washington all of a sudden had a Guardian Council in charge and they came to you and said, I want you to make sure that these students no longer use Facebook. Couple of keystrokes, would you be done with it?
Mr. SCHWALBE: They would probably wish it was that easy, but it's next to impossible to do that reliably. We can put in some blocks. We could go ahead and block Facebook.com. And I would say, within less than a day, they would have access to Facebook again because they would figure out a way around that.
KASTE: For example, students could connect through proxies — friendly computers on the outside that relay the information. Still, the university would enjoy a kind of chokehold on the Internet. It could make things harder for students by constantly updating the list of blocked Web sites and dipping in to the flow of information coming through this building. Not that the University of Washington would want to do that, but the government of Iran does.
Professor JONATHAN ZITTRAIN (Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard Law): In Iran, they have a basic filtering architecture that has the average Internet connection piped through a government server firm before it goes anywhere else.
KASTE: Jonathan Zittrain is co-founder of the Berkman Center for the Internet & Society at Harvard Law. He says Iran has used its chokepoint to do a lot of the same things that the hypothetical autocratic university would do. But, like resourceful American students in search of Facebook, many Iranians get around those blocks. Complicating matters for the authorities, Zittrain says, is the fact that social networking services like Twitter are decentralized.
Prof. ZITTRAIN: Many people use Twitter whether they're posting tweets in or just reading what other people are saying without visiting Twitter.com. They could be using any number of third-party services that have grown up around Twitter. And that way, when the government blocks Twitter.com, the people using these alternatives don't even realize there's been a block.
KASTE: The government can still gum up the works. People on Twitter can be anonymous, and the opposition has warned of disinformation tweets posted presumably by government supporters. The Iranian opposition also has fewer options in its cat-and-mouse game with the censors because of U.S. sanctions, which have kept some American companies from offering services like instant messaging in Iran.
Still, persistent Internet users find the information they want. The only sure way to block them is to pull the plug on the Internet itself. But Danny O'Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation says he doubts the Iranian government wants to do that.
Mr. DANNY O'BRIEN (Electronic Frontier Foundation): It's like closing down an essential utility in order to control your populace - and that's not a decision that you can take lightly.
KASTE: These days, the Internet is so integrated into industry, government — life itself - that even in Iran, shutting it down would be the political equivalent of going nuclear.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.