In the summer of 2009, the Obama administration reached out to Twitter with an unusual request. The company planned to take the social network offline for a short period of time to perform some regularly scheduled maintenance. Usually, when this type of downtime occurs, Twitter conducts it in the middle of the night in the United States, as a way to inconvenience as few people as possible in the country where the platform has the most users.
The White House, however, was concerned. Midnight in the U.S. is the middle of the afternoon in Tehran, where protestors were using the social network to organize mass demonstrations against a disputed presidential election many believed was rigged to favor hard-line incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Obama administration saw Twitter as such a catalyzing factor in facilitating large-scale dissent in Iran that it asked the company to reschedule the maintenance so it would hit at night in Iran. Twitter, unsurprisingly, acquiesced.
American leaders weren't the only ones who recognized the power of Twitter to transform Iranian democracy. In the midst of the country's so-called Green Revolution, the Iranian government blocked access to Twitter.
"From the user's perspective, you don’t even really know that Lantern is doing all of this stuff behind the scenes."
That block has stayed in place to this day. And it's something Adam Fisk is trying help everyday Iranians circumvent.
Fisk is the creator of a mobile app called FireTweet, which allows Internet users in the country to tweet despite the official ban.
FireTweet isn't the first anti-censorship tool conceived by Fisk and his associates. Utilizing Fisk's background as a engineer for the now-shuttered peer-to-peer file sharing service Limewire, he created a program called Lantern in 2013. Lantern works by having people in uncensored countries join into a peer-to-peer network. People in censored regions essentially see the Internet through the uncensored connections of people elsewhere in the world.
To date, Lantern has attracted 150,000 users, with the biggest concentration in Iran. However, it had a major weakness—it isn't available on smartphones or tablets. FireTweet, which Fisk's team initially created during a hackathon in Valencia, Spain, earlier this year, is an attempt to rectify that.
FireTweet works like a standard mobile Twitter client for Android devices, except it's hooked into the back end of Lantern's network, allowing users in places where Twitter is blocked, like Iran or China, to access the social network.
"On Android, if you’re going to use a circumvention tool, the configuration is a little more complicated [than on a desktop], so the idea was just to have a pre-packaged app that would take care of all of that for you," Fisk says. "From the user's perspective, you don’t even really know that Lantern is doing all of this stuff behind the scenes."
Fisk notes that FireTweet is useful for Internet users anywhere Twitter is blocked, but he says his group is focusing its efforts, at least initially, on Iran.
Internet censorship in Iran is an interesting conundrum, according to Fisk. Accessing major social networking sites is prohibited, but millions of people in the country reportedly use Twitter and Facebook on a daily basis through virtual private networks (VPNs). Technically, VPNs are also banned in Iran, but the programs are often sold on websites accessible to Iranian Internet users, and payment can be processed though government-sanctioned payment gateways like Pardakht Net and Sharj Iran. Seven out of 10 young Iranian Internet users get online via a VPN.
Those payment systems require users to enter their name and bank account information, meaning the government undoubtedly has a pretty good idea of who is using VPNs. "The Iranian government owns more than 70 percent of VPNs inside Iran," researcher and activist Nariman Gharib told the Daily Dot in an interview earlier this year, adding that most the VPN operators clearly have the protection of the government, "because [otherwise] they should be in jail by now! Which [they are] not!"
In addition to the surveillance implications of the close relationship between government censors and VPN operators, there's also the issue that VPNs aren't particularly difficult for government Internet censors to shut down entirely. Fisk notes that VPNs were created with privacy and security in mind, not as a means to avoid wholesale government censorship. As a result, VPN traffic is easy to identity and block entirely. Iranian censors blocked access to a large number of VPNs during the run-up to the country's 2013 election, for example.
FireTweet, on the other hand, is much more robust because Lantern's traffic is disguised as it transits across the Internet. The only time a government was able to block Lantern was in late 2013, when, as Fisk admits, the organization broke some of its own rules by making Lantern directly available to people in Iran without the standard email invite after the app was featured on a satellite news show popular in the country.
Soon after the news show aired, the people of China caught wind of Lantern and began downloading it in droves, says Fisk. The government crackdown soon followed.
"People in China very quickly picked up on that they could get Lantern without an invite. Then there was an article in the South China Morning Post that really put us on the radar of the people who maintain the Great Firewall," Fisk recalled. "They blocked it within about a week. In that period, [because I used Lantern,] my personal IP address at home was blocked from accessing anything in China. I couldn't access any of the Internet inside China from my house. We got it unblocked within about a week or so, and we really haven’t seen anything after that."
Giving users in highly censored countries like China or Iran access to programs like FireTweet or Lantern has been one of Fisk's biggest frustrations. Simply having the website blocked is a major obstacle to increased adoption. The Google app store is banned in both Iran and China, which closes another possible window for distribution.
People in countries like the U.S. that lack Internet restrictions can download FireTweet from the app's website. Everyone else can email firstname.lastname@example.org and get an automated response with the app included as an attachment.
Illustration by Max Fleishman