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Iran users face slow Web amid tense vote run-up

VPNs disabled, crippling social media role in anticipated street protests

Iran users face slow Web amid tense vote run-up
The protests that accompanied Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 victory, were largely organised through social media.

Iranian Internet users have been plagued by slower speeds and sporadic access in the run up to the Islamic republic's June 14 presidential election, Reuters reported.

Iranian officials reportedly dismissed an connection between Internet performance and the upcoming vote, but the fierce protests that accompanied President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed victory over Mir-Hossein Mousavi in 2009 were largely organised through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

Ahmadinejad's 2009 victory marked his second consecutive term in office, making him ineligible to run in the upcoming election. The race was previously expected to be limited to hardline conservatives allied to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and hostile to Ahmadinejad, who has fallen out with Khamenei. However, eleventh-hour entries of moderate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, and Ahmadinejad ally Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie added a degree of unpredictability to June's vote.

The BBC reported yesterday that both entrants were ruled as ineligible by the Guardian Council, whose role it is to vet election candidates on behalf of the Interior Ministry. Website Kaleme, a forum for opposition voices, reported tighter security on the streets of the capital Tehran on Monday, possibly to control protests in anticipation of the council's ruling.

Kaleme also reported that much of Tehran had seen degradation in Internet speeds and in some parts of the capital Web access was impossible, which would hamper attempts to organise protests on the scale of those in 2009.

Internet users in Iran number around 45m, according to official figures, and many of them use virtual private networks (VPNs), which can disguise the location of a computer, to get around Web blockages. However, in March the government managed to block access to most VPNs. Because of this, according to experts cited by Reuters, Iran Internet users would have faced slower access to SSL sites that use addresses beginning with "https" (including Gmail) and would have been forced to switch to unencrypted sites that could be monitored by authorities.

"SSL services are being throttled by the government to create a system of incentives or coercion not to use them," said US-based Internet researcher Collin Anderson, who focuses on Iran. "That affects Gmail and pretty much anything that you want a layer of security on."

One source, described by Reuters as "a man in his 30s who works at an Internet Service Provider (ISP) company in Tehran" said most VPNs were inoperable and those still in operation were crashing within two minutes.

He said: "Fewer and fewer people are using Twitter in recent days, which shows their problems accessing the Net."

Iranian officials denied any link between the disruptions and the election. "Numerous parameters contribute to the speed of the Internet and the approach of elections will not have any role," Ali Hakim Javadi, head of Iran's Information Technology Organisation, told ISNA news agency.

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