Iran human rights chief talks Internet, compares filter-evaders to thieves

The secretary of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary human rights staff gives insight into regime views of the Internet and its future in Iran.

Mohammad-Javad Larijani, the secretary of the judiciary human rights staff, recently gave an illuminating interview on the Internet in Iran which may be indicative of key aspects of the Islamic Republic’s approach to cyberspace.

As the head of the Institute of Research in Fundamental Sciences (IPM), which was the first center in Iran to be connected to the Internet in the early 1990s, Larijani scoffed at accusations of “being against the Internet”, saying that it did not apply to him. However, he did raise two main concerns about the role of the Internet in Iran:

“One part of this is the West’s abuse of access to information which is a security issue which all countries are sensitive to. The other part of it is about penetration of Western culture and making our own culture second-tier, which is a bad cultural assault and we must be sensitive to it.”

He specifically highlighted the “infrastructural” issues that Iran faces in terms of being reliant on the West for connecting with the Internet, noting that:

“For example it is very bad that now an Internet message from one point, for instance Tehran, to another point in Tehran, first must go to America and then again back to Iran. I am strongly in favour of use of the national [information] network” and “we must not go outside Iran for transit from point A to B.”

The national information network (NIN) is Iran’s national intranet project, which uses a combination of Iranian networks, hardware, and software/applications to cordon off Iranians’ online activities and presence from the global Internet. Iran is a leading, if not the leading, state in aspiring and attempting to create a national internet, alongside countries like China.

However, before the NIN is successfully implemented, the Islamic Republic is dealing with its security and cultural concerns about the Internet through a pervasive system of web filtering. When asked by the reporter what he thought about filtering, Larijani emphasized the importance of filtering, saying that:

“Filtering, which you have alluded, is one of the issues that all of the world has, of course based on their own sensitivities; and that has its own mechanisms. Filtering is like the door and wall which you put on your home. Naturally, when you place a door you also place a lock on it. A thief can still open this door, however he must be somewhat more professional, and because some thieves open doors you do not remove the door on your house, or do not remove the walls, filtering is the same.”

Larijani, however, also saw potential positives about the Internet under some conditions:

“I strongly believe that these technologies have good function as long as we develop these ourselves. If we are only mere users of it, we are subdued by them, but if we develop these ourselves then it has many advantages.”

“We believe that we can use these technologies with the correct culture and certainly for our Islamic goals and development and propagation of Islam has many great advantages.”

As Larijani’s interview indicates, Iran is faced with what those who study cyberspace describe as the “dictator’s dilemma”, whereby regimes with authoritarian tendencies are faced with the challenge of balancing potential benefits (economic, scientific, and otherwise) of the Internet with potential drawbacks, namely its emancipatory capacities for civil society and the population at large. With the NIN project, Iran has embarked on a unique path whose long-term efficacy is far from certain.