Saturday 20 October 2012

How PayPal is helping Iranian government's internet censorship

[Level N]

I have difficulty believing what I read in Hacker News around the same time my account was blocked and closed by PayPal trying to pay 3$ for internet proxy to combat filtering which has rendered internet pretty much useless in Iran. Did he read my email? I do not know but it left me frustrated and hopeless in one of the most difficult times in my life.

As some of you might know, I have been going through rough times for the last 18 months. My mother in law   passed away 3 weeks ago after a long battle during which my wife spent mostly with her - which is a consolation.

So when I visited her and family in Iran (that's where I am from) around 2 months ago, I realised that internet censorship is so bad that it has become really unusable. Sites such as twitter which I am addicted to are obviously blocked as they played an important role in Iran's suppressed Green Revolution, arguably first Twitter Revolution in world . In fact even this blog that you are reading and anything hosted on Google's blogspot is filtered - Iran had highest number of bloggers in the Middle East and a number of them are in prison. But even Gmail gets its share and gets blocked from time to time. According to some reports, 40% of Iranians (30 million) use internet which is second in Middle East after Israel, and as far as I know, most of them use either internet proxies, anti-filters, anonymisers and VPNs to bypass the censorship. So even if we say only half use anti-censorship tools, we are talking about 15 million people. I had actually setup a dedicated PC in UK for my wife to use as remote desktop connection (RDP) since sometimes these proxies are found by the government and blocked. But slow speed of internet (intentionally kept low) makes it almost useless since each refresh of the screen takes a few seconds.

So how does PayPal come into this? Most of these companies only accept PayPal. And PayPal blocks all accounts if it realises the IP is from Iran. Regardless of the amount, who is the receiver, how long the account has been used or behaviour of the account. Why? That is a a very good question, but maybe because someone is trying to purchase nuclear equipments or funding terrorism or ...! Honestly is that not silly? Paying 3$ for anti-censorship filter is illegal because you are connected from Iran? If anyone wants to use their PayPal account for illegal activities, they sure will use a proxy first so that they mask their IP. This will only affect ordinary people like me that are trying to pay for proxies as surely with the sanctions, you cannot buy anything that ships to Iran.

Now out of everyone, I am among the people least would wish to help Iran's government. My family was struck by this very government when my uncle working as Political Analyst for British Embassy was arrested by the authorities charged with spying back in 2009. He was then released after months but due to constant pressure and persecution from the authorities he had to flee from Iran and now has resumed his work in the Foreign Office in UK.

So where does this leave me?

Well it leaves my account blocked and closed. Having come back, I cannot use my account anymore. Emails I have sent have been responded with utter disinterent and "We don't care" attitude. And I have really hard time believing whether PayPal CEO does read complaint emails. I think I might have been rash with my tone in some emails but my frustration was extreme because of the unjustice.

But I am only one in many. Lives of many millions of Iranians have been affected by sanctions. Ordinary people suffer from the hands of the brutal government yet they find no consolation by the way they are treated outside Iran especially PayPal. For them, internet is the only way out of the oppression but blocking purchase of anti-censorship accounts is standing side-by-side with the Iranian regime. Does this make you happier Mr. David Marcus?

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