Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Iran's Online Crackdown

In the June 16 Washington Post, Robin Wright reported that "Iran is in the midst of a sweeping crackdown that both Iranians and U.S. analysts compare to a cultural revolution in its attempt to steer the oil-rich theocracy back to the rigid strictures of the 1979 revolution."

According to Wright, this "cultural revolution" involves the following:

The recent detentions of Iranian American dual nationals are only a small part of a campaign that includes arrests, interrogations, intimidation and harassment of thousands of Iranians as well as purges of academics and new censorship codes for the media. Hundreds of Iranians have been detained and interrogated, including a top Iranian official, according to Iranian and international human rights groups.

The move has quashed or forced underground many independent civil society groups, silenced protests over issues including women's rights and pay rates, quelled academic debate, and sparked society-wide fear about several aspects of daily life, the sources said.

Both the New York Times and the BBC, among other media outlets, have confirmed this picture of a "cultural revolution" designed not merely to quash dissent, but to take Iran back to the even darker days of the Khomeini era.

Among the aspects of this second Islamic revolution are: the most intense crackdown on "immoral" female clothing in over a decade; persecution of dissident university students and professors; periodic shutting of opposition newspapers; imposing death sentences on journalists and other activists; and carrying out the first openly acknowledged execution by stoning in 5 years. As BBC correspondent Frances Harrison wrote in a July 7 dispatch for the BBC web site, "there is a sense of a widespread crackdown on the media."

An intensification of Iran's campaign of online censorship is an integral part of this "cultural revolution". As Radio Farda reported on July 24:

It is among the most familiar phrases to the roughly 8 million-11 million web surfers in Iran, the second-largest Internet user in the Middle East behind Israel.

"You Are Not Authorized To View This Page!"

More than 10 million websites are currently being "filtered" in Iran, according to the state Information Technology Company.

So worried is the regime by the prospect of its people enjoying unfettered access to the Internet, that in late 2006 it even stopped Iranian ISPs "from providing Internet connections faster than 128 kilobytes per second (kbps) to homes and cafes."

Blogging is extremely popular in Iran, and has become one of the few outlets for relatively free expression. Unfortunately, the Iranian authorities have started to rectify this situation. It's not that blogging is no longer permitted in Iran; it's just that, as The Guardian noted on June 7, there's now one condition:

Want to start a blog in Iran? Then you'll have to register it with the government - which has recently begun to require that all bloggers register at, a site established by the ministry of culture of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government.

All you need do is give your personal information, including your blog's username and password - otherwise it will be filtered and blocked so that nobody in Iran, and perhaps outside too, will be able to access it. This has led to an outcry among many Iranian bloggers who consider the net an independent and free forum for expression.

Both the Radio Farda article and the Guardian piece point out that Iran's online community is fighting back against the regime's intensified cybercensorship. Many bloggers are refusing to register, while others are developing proxy software designed to evade the filters. Whether the Iranian autocracy can successfully suppress online dissent over the long term is the key question, with far reaching implications for the future of the Internet and of free expression whatever happens. In the meantime, the Guardian sums things up:

For clever users, filtering sounds pointless: thousands of proxy sites distribute the net's wider content to blogs or emails. But self-censorship is already affecting journalists, writers and intellectuals who fear prosecution.

Whether the bloggers can fare any better remains to be seen; but what's clear is that they are all there, trying, working away at the edges that let the rest of the world creep through to tell Iran what the rest of the world is thinking, saying and doing.


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