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Iran Cyber Front: Culture minister signals possible changes in Iran’s cyber policies

Could the Islamic Republic of Iran be taking a new approach to cyberspace, and some media freedoms more broadly? It is perhaps too soon to tell, but recent comments by the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ali Jannati have raised hopes that the regime may in fact be moving in this direction.

Speaking to Mehr News Agency at the sideline of a “digital media activists conference”, Jannati was asked about the filtering of social networking websites such as Facebook . He responded that this was an issue under the oversight of the website filtering committee, an independent body in which the culture ministry only has a single representative and limited influence on decision making. Still, Jannati expressed the hope that by dialoguing with committee members and other stakeholders: “Not only Facebook but other social networks will be accessible,” and more broadly that “Filtering of Internet sites must be restricted to extent possible and only in necessary cases.” He explained that according to the present system many websites that should not be blocked in fact are, and gave anecdotes from his own time conducting research but often being blocked by the regime’s cyber censorship system.

According to Jannati, loosening cyber restrictions are also about unleashing Iran’s potential power in cyberspace: “Today most of the advanced countries that benefit from information technology see the huge impact in the development of their country and the growth of their gross domestic product; in addition to this, the role that information technology plays in the power of countries and their dominance is undeniable.” He also asserted that countries, more and more, are moving toward soft power:

“Today one can impose dominance on other countries who has more information; for example, America as a country which has benefited the most from information technology, beside military power, has used this technology in order to impose dominance on other countries, and even spied on the conversations of the heads of Europe and gained their economic, scientific and industrial information and used that toward its own advantage.”

In order to unleash Iran’s cyber potential, Jannati highlighted the three foundations of information technology which he believed must be strengthened, including software, hardware, and digital content, noting that: “Although in the field of hardware our role is zero, and in the area of software we have had limited achievements, however, in the area of digital content, with our cultural roots, we have a large field before us that we can use to the utmost.” He was quick to highlight Iran’s achievements in expanding IT infrastructure and a number of other IT related fields, saying that today Iran has 81,000 km of inter-city fiber-optics, 30,000 km intra-city fiber-optics, a 130 percent mobile telephone penetration rate, is ranked fourth internationally in registering of domains, and exports $400 million worth of software.

The culture minister went on to question the notion that web filtering can be effective in an era in which we live in a “global village”, referring to Marshall Mcluhan’s famous concept, maintaining that: “Neither filtering can block access to and transfer of information, and are restrictive methods for communicating with the global village effective.”

Finally, Jannati also questioned the Islamic Republic’s practice of jamming foreign television emissions, saying that the current approach was not effective and that there are better ways to move forward:

“In the field of TV channels jamming, restricting access to satellite channels and installation of dishes and receivers cannot be effective; we must think of a solution and go toward alternative activities, and by creating attractive and beneficial content prevent the use of foreign television and digital media.”

Could this be a change in what IranPolitik, in a recent collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania’s Iran Media Program, described as Iran’s problematic strategy in the “soft war”? The term soft war refers to the Islamic Republic’s fear of a Western (and especially American) cultural invasion, which it believes may be undermining the effectiveness of regime’s ideology and state-society relations. In our report we characterized the regime’s soft war strategy as being divided into two aspects: (i) A coercive element in which it tries to block the penetration of Iran by Western “soft power” through a variety of means on one hand and (ii) an element in which it seeks to generate its own soft power to reinvigorate the regime’s ideology and attract its people back into the fold, on the other. However, we argued that, to date, the strategy has been very limited in its impact because the coercive element has not been able to largely block Western soft power and because the Iranian state lacks the capacity to generate soft power without the substantive input of civil society.

While Iran’s social and political atmosphere remain nearly as restrictive under the Hassan Rouhani administration as it was under the previous one, the new administration has signaled that it would like to take a new, more open, approach. If Jannati and his boss prove capable of following through with their rhetoric and public statements, Iran could gradually see a less restricted cyberspace. Such an approach could also be a boon for the efforts to generate soft power, especially if civil society has the freedoms and resources it needs to do so.