Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ahmadinejad's War on the Internet

Nir Boms describes the Iranian regime's intensifying campaign to censor the Internet, and free expression in general:

As the West prepares for engagement, Iran has issued yet another broad offensive against what their authorities consider immoral Western culture. Consistent with its policy of censorship, Iran now targets the New York Times, the online encyclopedia, the online book store and online movie portals and Iran's Internet service providers (ISPs) were recently ordered to reduce the speed of private Internet access to a maximum of 128 kilobits per second (KBps), a speed reminiscent of the now obsolete dialup modems that disappeared from the developed world over a decade ago. The slower speed will prevent the use of Internet applications such as VOIP communication that would permit phone conversations outside the tightly controlled Iranian phone system. The new regulations will further hinder the work of researchers who already have limited access to the government-censored Internet. And if that is not enough, the head of the Agency for the Development of Information Technology in Iran, Vafa Ghafaryan, told the official news agency ISNA that the government will increase surveillance over "harmful" text messages as well.

These latest decrees are a component of an escalating clampdown on the media following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rise to power. Recent victims of the campaign have been Shargh, a reformist newspaper, and Nameh, a political journal. Their crimes? Shargh published a cartoon that seemed to lampoon Iranian nuclear negotiations. Nameh was forcibly closed for the publication of a poem by dissident female poet Simin Behbahani. And we also have people like Arash Sigarchi, who began blogging on a collective site called "The Man from Gilan," and later on his personal site, called "The Window of Hope." Twenty eight-year-old Mr. Sigarchi was arrested in early 2005 and sentenced to 14 years in prison for "propaganda against the regime," according to Reporters Without Borders.

This early December article from the Wall Street Journal offers additional details on Ahmadinejad's campaign against intellectual freedom online (Thanks to Jack Stephens for letting me know about it):

The Internet crackdown in Iran reflects efforts by the Islamist government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to cleanse Iran of what its leaders deem decadent Western culture, including music and movies. Government authorities in recent days have broached several new measures, such as requiring bloggers and operators of Web sites to register with an official body, strengthening the government's ability to police what it views as objectionable content.

The government began tightening its grip on the Internet two years ago, when it arrested a handful of bloggers and others whose writings were deemed offensive, according to Reporters Without Borders. One blogger, Mojtaba Saminejad, faced the death penalty for "insulting the prophets," but was found guilty of a lesser charge.

Last month, the government blocked two Web sites, and The first contained criticism of the government and its spiritual leadership, and the second published articles calling for an end to the stoning of women, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Of course, like most of what Ahmadinejad has done, the increased censorship of the Internet is simply an intensified version of a preexisting policy, not a radical departure. After all, as ABC News points out, Iran has "the dubious distinction of being the first ever country to jail a blogger. In 2003, the Iranian dissident Sina Motallebi was imprisoned for apparently insulting Iran's supreme leader in his blog." In 2003 the "moderate" Mohammad Khatami was still Iran's president, not Ahmadinejad.

Fortunately, as the same article notes, Iranians are figuring out how to defeat the regime's efforts at online censorship:

Internet users in Iran are so used to being greeted with messages saying "this site is forbidden" or "this page has been filtered" that they are finding ways to circumvent the government's restrictions.

"We're all becoming hackers, finding ways to get round this" says Afshin Abtahi, ABC News' fixer in Tehran.

"You call your friend and they'll give you an IP address to get round the filters. People are basically trading in IP addresses."

Software and technology such as those discussed on and are enabling people to disguise their computers' IP addresses and access sites as if they are not in Iran.

From censoring the Internet, to banning books, to issuing fatwas calling for the murder of writers who "insult Islam", Iran's Islamist autocracy has essentially declared war on free expression. It is a sign of both the regime's radicalism and its desperation.

The Ahmadinejad-Khamenei regime is engaged in a desperate gamble to develop nuclear weapons and ensure that its brand of radical Islamism, not the Sunni Salafist version represented by al Qaeda, dominates the Middle East. It does this in order to fulfill its own ideological imperatives, and to keep from being undone by its own domestic crises and contradictions. After all, a regime dependent on oil revenues that is rapidly losing the ability to export oil does not have much of a future. Crushing dissent at home is a way to buy time and keep the lid on until its expansionist efforts can succeed.


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