AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Iran has one of the highest percentages of Internet access in the Middle East. But the number of sites Iranians can legally visit is extremely limited. The government has charged cyber police units with tracking those who try to visit banned Internet or social media sites. Much in that policing targets pro-democracy activists. From Istanbul, NPR's Peter Kenyon reports on Iranian dissidents' struggle to maintain their online activism.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: When the ayatollah got a Facebook page in mid-December, Iranians sat up and blinked. Some thought it was a fake, finding it hard to believe that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would be using a technology that his own government blocks. A State Department spokeswoman skeptically wondered how many likes it would attract. But some of Khamenei's supporters quickly rallied behind the move, which first came to light in a reference on - you guessed it - the ayatollah's Twitter account.
For a time, Iran's millions of computer users allowed themselves to hope that it might lead to an unblocking of Facebook and other social media sites. Not so. They still have to pick the government's cyber locks to access the latest thoughts from their own leader. Of course, that's not the only site Iranians want to visit, and that's what has the authorities worried. After security forces crushed massive street protests following the controversial 2009 elections, activists took their dissent to the virtual world where they now find themselves under increasingly aggressive attack.
REZA GHAZI NOURI: The fight in the online space is not over.
KENYON: Reza Ghazi Nouri is an activist who fled to Turkey when he was threatened with years in prison for his support of pro-reform candidates. His research into Iran's Internet and social networking communities shows the increasing ability of government cyber police units to learn the identities of online writers, some of whom are then arrested, interrogated and tortured. One brutal example came last November.
A blogger named Sattar Beheshti was arrested for critical comments posted on Facebook. His death in custody after allegedly being tortured provoked international condemnation. Still, Nouri believes it had the desired chilling effect.
NOURI: Because when you torture somebody to death for blogging and writing in Facebook, you're not just killing him, you're oppressing and frightening millions of other people.
KENYON: Security analyst Theodore Karasik at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis says after being caught off guard by the huge protests of 2009, the government has gotten much more savvy at stifling dissent online as well as in the streets.
THEODORE KARASIK: It's not unusual for someone to get followed or to conduct their Internet or social media sessions in another house or another location that they think is secure when in fact it really isn't. Indeed, there is a crackdown ongoing and will probably even get worse with the development of an Iran-only Internet.
KENYON: Technology analysts have debated Tehran's effort to seal off the country from the World Wide Web. Karasik sides with those who believe it can be done, while others doubt that a hermetic cyber seal could be maintained. There are tools, such as VPN's, or virtual private networks, that allow Iranians to disguise their computer's identity. But according to activist Reza Nouri, some of the cheapest VPN's on the Iranian market are supplied by the revolutionary guard itself and provide no protection whatsoever. The crucial obstacle at the moment, he says, is organizing.
NOURI: The problem is that you can have safe communications with two, three or four people. But when you try to organize an event, you have to communicate with thousands of people. So that's not working.
KENYON: The increased pressure has caused many opposition supporters to deactivate their Facebook accounts. Still, the authorities are preparing for a spike in activism as the June presidential contest approaches. Nouri says if the international community really wants to help pro-democracy forces in Iran, it should invest in internet freedom there. Meanwhile, the Ayatollah's Facebook page seems to be thriving. As of late January it had been liked nearly 30,000 times. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.