But Iran News Update also pointed out that these developments have not coincided with a shift in Iran’s overall policy toward the internet and social media. Rather, the growing acceptance of Twitter seems to be a begrudging compromise, based on the fact that widespread, systematic violations of the ban had allowed it to nonetheless achieve mainstream status.
But that trend toward the mainstream also seems to have led to Twitter becoming less and less prominent as a tool of free speech and activist organizing. This, in turn, has made it easier for regime authorities to soften their restrictions while also joining the service in order to turn more of its content toward pro-regime communications and propaganda.
Meanwhile, activists and dissidents have shifted their attention toward less prominent, alternative websites and social networks, and these continue to be subject to aggressive oppression by the Ministry of Intelligence, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and its Basij civilian militia. Prominent among those alternatives is the Telegram instant messaging app, which became popular among progressive Iranians because of reports that it was comparatively more secure than familiar social networks.
While this may be true, it has certainly not prevented the Iranian regime from finding persons to prosecute over its use. It was recently reported that one unnamed Telegram administrator had been arrested and would face charges over thousands of supposedly “obscene” pictures and videos that had been exchanged on the service. In announcing the arrest, the Iranian judiciary boasted of the constant internet monitoring apparently being carried out by Basij volunteers, suggesting that more arrests would be forthcoming.
But as the regime continues to clamp down on existing websites and social networks, developers both inside and outside of Iran continue to introduce new tools on the expectation that activists, dissidents, and advocates for a secular society will have opportunities to use those resources to organize before the regime catches onto the latest trends and finds way to combat them.
In one example of this phenomenon, The Sun reported on Wednesday that a service called Hamdam had been developed by Silicon Valley experts and introduced to Iranian women as a way of tracking their individual menstrual cycles. But the app doubles as a women’s rights resource, conveying both medical and legal information in a covert way, in order to empower them to navigate a hardline Islamic system that is increasingly depriving women of access to contraception and enforcing highly discriminatory religious laws.
Other new technologies aim to provide similar empowerment to different marginalized groups in the Islamic Republic. Among these are ethnic and religious minorities like the Baha’i faith community, which originated in Iran but is considered by the regime to be a threat to the regime’s Islamic identity.
As part of a broader effort to put pressure on Baha’is to convert, the Islamic Republic systematically denies them access to higher education and employment opportunities. This has led to the creation of alternative educational infrastructure for the Baha’i, but teachers in such institutions have been targeted for arrest and prosecuted for crimes like “acting against national security.”
Now, the Iranian public’s widespread skill at avoiding internet restrictions shows the potential for online learning to help circumvent the ban on education for Baha’is. On Monday, CNN profiled an Iranian-born programmer named Shakib Zabihian, who fled religious persecution in his home country in 2013, and now lives and works in Los Angeles.
Zairian was unable to obtain a formal education in Iran and utilized the underground university system as well as a course of independent study to develop the skills he would need. Now passionate about education, Zabihian has developed a app to connect students with expert tutors. Though currently limited to the US, the geographic reach of the Toot app is expected to grow, and it is easy to imagine it or a similar system becoming another weapon in the culture war being waged on the battleground of the Iranian internet.