U.S. says “Virtual Embassy” Still Getting Through Despite Iran’s Censors

Dec 9, 2011 4:35pm

The State Department is pushing back against Iran’s claim that it has successfully blocked the new U.S. “Virtual Embassy,” a website that aims to reach out to Iranian citizens, saying that blocked does not mean the site is inaccessible.

“There is no question, as it passes 750,000 page views, Virtual Embassy Tehran remains open for business.  The Iranian people have found creative ways to get around the regime’s attempts to block basic information about travel and study in the United States,” Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said in a statement to ABC News.

One of those ways around the government censors involves the use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, which are popular in Iran and allow internet users to mask their origin and foil internet controls.

U.S. officials cite figures they believe show Iranians are using technology like VPNs to access the site. For example, they have seen traffic to the Farsi language site from countries without large Persian populations. That, they say, suggests the users are actually in Iran and are masking their origin by accessing the site through a third country’s servers. Officials do concede, however, it’s only their best guess because by design it is impossible to say for sure who is using a VPN to access the site.

“It looks like folk around the world are using sites all around the world in fact to try to circumvent the jam and get to our site,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

The department says it has already received more than 1,300 questions submitted in Farsi through the website, ranging from questions on how to obtain a visa and study in the United States to policy questions asking why the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Iran. Officials say staff are already at work responding to the inquiries.

The State Department launched the Virtual Embassy on Tuesday morning, but within 12 hours Iranian authorities added it to the millions of websites it blocks. A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry reportedly denounced the site, saying it meddles in Iran’s domestic affairs.

Among the millions of blocked websites are social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Though Facebook is officially banned in Iran, the government there has admitted millions of Iranians use the site. U.S. officials point to Facebook’s popularity in Iran as evidence that technology like VPNs will ensure Iranians have access to Virtual Embassy.

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