Iran: Increased Internet Control after Election Protest

November 18th, 2010   Theme: Internet Freedom

Few countries in the world are as effective in controlling the usage and content of the internet as Iran. In spite of significant limitations in internet use, the controversial presidential election of 2009, turned into a manifestation of internet’s potential as a distribution channel for dissident information. In the absence of traditional media, new media such as blogs, YouTube and Twitter were used to spread the story of dissident protests to the rest of the world. The assassination of the young activist Neda Agha-Soltan was capture by a mobile camera and distributed through YouTube. The images became symbols for the resistance to the regime.

The use of social media in the turbulent Iranian election in 2009 is often considered a marker in the history of internet. Never before has the internet been used to such an extent to voice opinion about authoritarian abuse of power. Through social media, the opposition managed to spread the news about violent protests against election fraud and the raw brutality of the police, used by the regime to strike down on the wide spread protest.

The frequent use of internet by the opposition however resulted in an even stricter control. In connection to the demonstrations, the regime discontinues access to the most frequently used social networks. As of now, access has not yet been restored, despite the calming down of the protests. Some thirty bloggers have been arrested since last summer’s dramatic events. Several of these risk the capital punishment.

In a country where freedom of the traditional media is limited and where the amount of internet users have increased significantly in the last years, the web has become an important tool for oppositional actions. The amount of Persian blogs are said to be around 60.000 and 35 percent of the Iranian population use internet at date. Thus, it is not surprising that the Iranian regime has developed one of the world’s most sophisticated systems for monitoring the internet.

All internet providers are forced to deny access to pages included in the Iranian government’s list of “immoral and political sites that insult the country’s religious and political leaders.” The list grows constantly and in 2008, the government claimed to block access to five million such pages. In connection to the election turbulence, several pages were added to the list, many with news in English. To make sure that the system works as intended, all private internet providers are forced to connect through the state controlled telecommunications company TCI which uses tailor made technical solutions to make sure home pages don’t include threatening material.

In addition to the strategy of blocking inconvenient information, the regime frequently harasses cyber dissidents and is distributing propaganda through the web. In 2009, Iran adopted a new legislation relating to the internet, in which far reaching measures were taken to prevent dissidents from acting on the net. Someone guilty of “spreading false information which may arouse the general public” could, according to the new law, be sentenced to two year’s in prison. At the moment, Reporters without Borders claim 13 individuals are imprisoned in Iran on charges of oppositional activities on the internet.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard, recently announced a unique campaign to strengthen the presence of the regime on the internet. The goal is to start 10.000 regime friendly blogs hosted by people associated to the Revolutionary Guard. This way, the regime hopes to counter balance oppositional forces, which are said to have taken control over the internet media.

Last year’s dramatic events have evidently pushed the regime in a more control-oriented direction. Nevertheless, there is a limit on how strict control could be imposed without affecting the country’s financial interest. Several international news channels have already been restricted and to a country aspiring to be a player in the global economy, these restrictions are likely to have a negative impact.

Furthermore, it is remarkable how well the opposition succeeded in using social media at last year’s protest, in spite of rigorous limitations. Not even the most sophisticated technical solutions can impose complete control over activities on the net. Especially not in a country such as Iran, where major parts of the highly educated and young population are well aware of new technology and where a widely dispersed diasporas may be used to spread information, inconvenient to the regime.
Michael Wahman

Doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Lund, specializing in international democratization.

(Sources: Freedom House, OpenNet Initiative, Reporters without Borders and International Telecommunication Union)

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