- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2009

Targeting the repressive methods of what one senator called a “cruel regime,” the U.S. Senate has authorized up to $50 million to help Iranians evade their government’s attempts to censor the Internet and to pressure foreign corporations not to help Iran clamp down on communication.

The Victim of Iranian Censorship, or VOICE, Act, was added to the Senate’s defense-authorization bill Thursday evening as a response to mass protests following Iran’s disputed June 12 presidential elections and amid concerns that Western companies have sold Iran technology used to monitor dissidents.

Internet-based tools such as Facebook and Twitter have become the key means for Iranians to communicate with each other and the outside world about protests over what many regard as a fraudulent victory by incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The U.S. legislation would require President Obama to issue a report on “non-Iranian companies, including corporations with U.S. subsidiaries, that have aided the Iranian government’s Internet censorship efforts.”

Such identification would make it easier to pressure firms to cease such business with Iran.

The Washington Times reported in April that Nokia Siemens Networks had sold Iran’s telecom company a “monitoring center.” The product’s promotional material says the center can sort and catalogue phone calls, e-mails and other Web communications. The portion of the business that deals with the monitoring center was sold at the end of March to a private German holding company, but the bad publicity has caused potential problems for Siemens business in the U.S.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board voted Thursday to delay a vote on whether to renew a contract with an Italian company, Ansaldobreda, to build rail cars for the city’s expanding subway system. Siemens, the main competitor for the deal, stands to make hundreds of millions of dollars if the board rejects the Italian company’s bid.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a sponsor of the VOICE Act, said Friday, “The Iranian government has taken numerous steps to stop these citizens from communicating with each other and with the outside world. As this cruel regime works to close off Iranian society, the VOICE Act, by providing assistance for broadcasting and new Internet and communications technologies, will help to open it up.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent Democrat of Connecticut and co-sponsor of the legislation, said the act “will help the Iranian people stay one step ahead of their regime, in getting access to information and safely exercising freedom of speech, assembly and expression online.”

The $50 million in the Senate bill was not in the House version and will have to be worked out in negotiations between the chambers. If it survives, the money would then have to be appropriated in spending bills to come.

The U.S. government in the past has put a relatively small amount of resources into training Iranians in anti-censorship methods and developing Web protocols for overcoming filtering.

For example, the Voice of America broadcasting service has an office devoted to anti-filtering and anti-censorship technology, but its total budget is less than $5 million. It has invested in a Farsi-language version of the Web browser Firefox embedded with Tor, a program originally developed by the U.S. Navy, which cloaks the user’s Web browsing from state monitors.

An additional $30 million for anti-censorship programs has been approved by a Senate subcommittee that funds the State Department and is awaiting a full vote on the Senate floor.

The VOICE Act would authorize $20 million for what it calls an Iranian Electronic Education, Exchange and Media Fund. A further $30 million is authorized for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the government body that oversees operations for the Voice of America as well as Radio Farda, a channel that broadcasts in Farsi. The bill would also give the Obama administration flexibility to transfer these funds to other agencies within the federal government.

In many ways, the new emphasis on anti-censorship technology is a break from prior legislation aimed at promoting democracy in Iran.

The Bush administration unveiled in 2006 a $30 million democracy program for Iran. Later it added an additional $60 million, most of which remains unspent, in part because it has been difficult to find ways to channel the funds to Iranians without exposing them to government retribution.

In the aftermath of the Iranian elections, however, circumstances have changed.

“There is a growing amount of money available for Web circumvention and activism,” Andrew Lewman, the executive director of the Tor project, told The Times.

“So when there is money, people will come, and you are seeing a lot of companies retooling themselves to become circumvention providers.”