July 31, 2011: American efforts to support the hacker community in keeping the Internet accessible for all users in to countries like Iran, Cuba and North Korea, have not been as successful as hoped. For example, earlier this year, the Iranian government managed to shut down over 90 percent of Iranians using a program called Tor, that was developed by hackers to help Iranians bypass government Internet censorship. The Iranians also appear to have developed the tools for this internally, rather than buying them from Western suppliers.
The U.S. government, despite a long, combative and acrimonious relationship with the hacker and Internet freedom communities, has decided to back Internet freedoms programs that seek to bypass Internet censorship in dictatorships. Thus the American government has provided $30 million dollars for hackers seeking to create software that will enable people to evade Internet surveillance and censorship. One of the more notable programs funded from this effort was Tor, a system that enables users to communicate without anyone able to identify the sender. Similar to anonymizer software, Tor was even more untraceable. Unlike anonymizer software, Tor relies on thousands of people running the Tor software, and acting as nodes for email (and attachments) to be sent through so many Tor nodes that it was believed virtually impossible to track down the identity of the sender. But the Iranians figured out a way to detect Tor users, and cut them off from the Internet. For the Iranian censors, that was good enough.
Meanwhile, the American money has funded development of software that makes smart phones safer for users who want to say things to others that their governments disapprove of. All this activity is directed at countries with heavy Internet censorship programs, like China, Burma, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and several African countries. While this software can also be used by criminals, terrorists and spies, the U.S. government believes that these groups already have access to software that can hide them, and that it's more important that police states have more reason to pay attention to what their citizens want.
Some dictatorships have created virtually impregnable Internet controls. This is the case in Cuba and North Korea, where the local Internet is cut off from the global Internet. In effect, the Cuban and North Korean Internet are each restricted to one country, and heavily monitored by the security services. Iran considered that, but decided not to implement an "Iranian Islamic Internet" because the Iranian economy, fueled by huge oil income, has too many useful external contacts. Cutting Iran off from the worldwide web would hurt the economy and cause more unrest.
But the clerical dictatorship that runs Iran has managed to recruit some good software development and Internet talent, and, like China, is using a combination of imported technology (including Chinese censoring systems) and locally developed stuff to keep anti-government individuals off the Internet.