Internet freedom in Iran: Restrictions imposed on Iranian society

Since the 2009 presidential election crisis, the Islamic Republic of Iran has become an increasingly restricted society. Evidence of this this can be seen on a wide number of fronts, including freedom of communication, which has serious implications for freedom of speech and access to information.

This has been accomplished by the government through measures enacted to restrain the wide spectrum of media used for communication. Traditional print and broadcast media including books, newspapers, radio, and television, have been effectively controlled by the regime since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. While it is not an exaggeration to talk about a government “monopoly” on radio and television (excluding satellite broadcasting which is limited to a small segment of the population) where content rarely strays outside of official “red-lines”. The case of print has been more diverse because the infrastructure required to produce print is much more accessible than what is needed to create and disseminate radio and television content within Iran. Since the time of President Mohammad Khatami, print media has flourished, but has still been subject to systematic censorship by the regime’s regulatory bodies.

In contrast, the regime has struggled to contain communication on the frontiers of new technologies, particularly satellite broadcasting, mobile telephones, and the Internet. As traditional print and broadcast media have become less viable as means for discourse, self-expression, and information consumption, Iranians have turned to alternative methods which lay outside effective government control. Yet here too obstruction by the Iranian government has become more effective.

Satellite broadcasting continues to be a thorn in the side of Iranian authorities, relaying programs from political opposition groups such as the Mujahedeen Khalgh Organization and foreign governments such as the United States’ Voice of American Persian News Network. Three principle techniques have been used extensively to counter satellite broadcasting. In light of Iran’s broadcasting blackout, satellite dishes have sprung up around Iran like mushrooms and are regularly seized and destroyed by the police. In parallel to search and seizures, electronic jamming has been employed to block undesired signals coming into Iran. Finally, those who have cooperated with outside satellite broadcasters have faced intimidation from the regime, including arrest and imprisonment.

Mobile telephones, particularly their texting and video functions, were very important in helping organize protests in 2009 and circulate images of what was happening inside Iran. However, even before 2009 the government was able to shut-off mobile telephone towers in areas where protests were happening and monitor Iranians’ communication. Since then its hold over this communication tool has become even more effective. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the premier security institution in Iran, acquired a majority stake in the Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI), the main provider of mobile telephone and Internet services in the country. It also appears to control Iran’s second mobile operator, IranCell, through a web of proxy companies. This leaves Iranians open to even greater surveillance and censorship through the application of ever more sophisticated technology, as suggested by the Wall Street Journal and PBS Frontline recently. This has left the Internet as the final frontier of free communication in Iran. But even here Iranians’ ability to freely express themselves and access information appears to be eroding.

The Internet: The final frontier?
In many ways the Internet represents the ultimate means of communication. It is a two-way communication device which can relay data in the form of text, images, audio, and video across a number of platforms including desktops, laptops, mobile telephones. Anyone can use it to create content which can be accessed by anyone else with a computer, in any number at any time. It transcends the limitations of any single type of communication medium, encompassing all of them. In practical terms, Iranians have used the Internet to overcome the limitations set on them by the regime. According to a survey conducted by the Iran Statistics Center (ICT) in 2010, the Internet penetration rate in Iran stood at 11%, while the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reported it as high as 38% in the same year.

For some time now the Internet has been a relatively unrestricted medium which Iranians have used to contact others, express themselves and find information. Urban youth have been one of the largest demographics in Iran to turn to the Internet. They visit websites, send emails, shop online and have created thousands of blogs on a variety of subjects to such an extent that Farsi is now one of the most common blogging languages on the Internet. Web 2.0 applications, particularly those linked to social media, have been a growing part of Internet usage in Iran. During the post-election protests in 2009-2010, social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter were used by Iranian youth supporting the Green Movement to organize themselves and spread their message. Video of the death of protestor Neda Agha-Soltan from a bullet wound was viewed by millions around the world, and turned into a powerful symbol by Iranian protestors to gain international support. This was one of the first viral-videos to have enormous political consequences since the beginning of the Internet revolution.

Though it is likely excessive to claim that Web 2.0 was a cause of the 2009-2010 protests and more recent events, it has no doubt fuelled activism and helped disseminate information about what is occurring within Iran around the world. The regime has called this a “soft-war” and “cultural assault” against Iran and has vowed to respond forcefully. This response, which began as early as early 2000s, has come in the form of a cyber-war strategy.

Iran’s cyber-strategy
The Islamic Republic categorizes the threats from the Internet in two parts. The first are threats of cyber espionage and sabotage, in which foreign governments and hostile hackers steal critical information, and damage infrastructure. The most prominent case which made international headlines in 2010 was the Stuxnet worm, which is believed by some to have been malware created by foreign governments to sabotage infrastructure linked to Iran’s nuclear program. This category of threats is common to all governments, and has become so significant in recent years that US President Barrack Obama tasked the Pentagon to respond to it. The second category of threats is those the Iranian government perceives as coming from its own citizens. This category is common to closed or closing societies like China and Russia, and will be the focus of our inquiry into Iran’s cyber-strategy.

Iran’s cyber strategy consists of six main elements. Unlike shutting-off mobile telephone towers during protests, Internet usage is much more diffuse and requires a more delicate touch. Given the importance Iran attributes to the Internet as a driver of economic growth and scientific and technological innovation, it does not want to “turn-off” the Internet, but merely to control it within Iran. To this end it has used its enormous power over Internet infrastructure outlined above to practice systematic web-filtering, blocking news and political opposition websites, and social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter. Where this has failed, it has limited the Internet speed available to the public, and intentionally slowed it down during sensitive periods such as protests.

Beyond this, it has invested heavily in its cyber-police, who enforce web-filtering and carry out operations in accordance with existing laws such as the Computer Crime Law enacted in 2009. Perhaps more insidious is Iran’s cyber-intelligence, which obtains information on Iranian citizens through a number of nefarious means. For example, during interrogation and torture sessions, Iranian political prisoners are routinely forced to give usernames and passwords to emails and social networking accounts, which are used to incriminate them as well as their friends, family, and acquaintances. Beyond physically extracted information, Iranian cyber-intelligence often simply hacks into private computers and accounts to obtain the information it requires. This was as demonstrated by a recent case in which the Iranian government may have used stolen security certificates to spy to spy on 300,000 people in the space of a month.

Finally, like China and Russia, Iran has begun to seriously consider creating a national “pure” intranet cut off from the World Wide Web and completely controlled by the Iranian government.

Can the Islamic Republic achieve its dream of a national “pure” intranet? China and Russia have embarked on similar projects, and have been successful to a degree. The creation of these intranets would in many ways reshape the Internet as it exists today, creating small and narrowly connected lakes in the place of currently existing great ocean. It would greatly reduce the medium’s potential to facilitate contact, self-expression, and the circulation of information, and empower states to control their citizens’ hearts’ and minds’. But political activists and ordinary people would not necessarily take this lying down, and are fighting back. Furthermore, private companies on the forefront of the Internet revolution and governments opposed to these authoritarian regimes have incentives to empower people through the Internet, and may play a crucial role in shaping the future. The future for now, however, looks grim for Iranians.