News : Human rights

IRAN: Internet Censorship Knows No Bounds

   During prayer services in Mashhad on the last Friday of May, Ayatollah Seyyed Ahmad Alam Alhoda declared that “social networks and satellites are tools of the enemy meant to create animosity with Quranic teachings.” He went on to say that if the government of Iran were to allow free access to the internet, it would have to first establish some way of preventing “the harms and risks associated with it.”

 

Simply by reversing these comments we can see that the clerical authorities distinctly advocate for extensive restriction of access to the internet in order to try to keep out some of the influences originating from the West and from “the enemy.” This says much about the motives for Iranian repression of information technology. The mullahs are keenly aware of how much their power can be threatened by the mere presence of ideas and social support from outside of the narrowly confined Islamic world of Iran.

   Consequently, cyberspace is the essential battleground for a lot of cultural conflicts raging within the Islamic state and between its government and the entirety of the West. Sometimes these conflicts are expressed through attempts to just quietly repress the Western element, as by keeping people from being able to access certain sites and certain ideas. Other times, they are expressed through brute intimidation and attempts to take the censorship beyond the borders of Iran, as if to say, “Keep your democratic ideas from seeping into our country.”

   An attempt at foreign intimidation is certainly one way to think about the news that in the last week of May a judge ordered that the CEO of Facebook to appear in an Iranian court to defend his company against accusations that has violated the privacy of people in Iran. The order cannot possibly be enforced, as there is no extradition treaty between Iran and the United States, which would surely not comply with such a demand anyway. 

   Yet the order, along with its trumped-up accusations of privacy violations, has great symbolic significance. Domestically, it reiterates the regime’s commitment to internet censorship, giving the country’s own people a high-profile reminder of the legal consequences they may face if they violate those restrictions. And on a broader scale, it sends the message that the enforcement of that censorship knows no limits. 

   That message has been expressed in a couple of significant ways by the recent report of eight convictions that were handed down in cases of Iranians using Facebook to post critical remarks about the government or about Iranian society. On one hand, this story also points to the regime’s willingness to take the fight against Western influence to the very edge of its own borders. One of the eight women convicted in the case is reportedly a British national, and the UK Foreign Office is investigating the situation. Depending on what action Britain takes, this may test the limits of Iran’s international confrontations over internet freedom. 

   But the more important factor in the case in the meantime is simply the severity of the sentences that that woman and her seven co-defendants received. The lightest of all of the sentences is still longer than seven years, and the longest is twenty years. That is up to two decades in prison that these women are facing for a crime that consists of nothing more than making unfavorable posts on Facebook.

   The judge in these cases reportedly applied brand-new legal provisions allowing even longer sentences than had been the norm for similar offenses. While any imprisonment over Facebook posts is wildly inappropriate, twenty years is beyond outlandish, and it can only imply that Ira is in the midst of an internet crackdown and is uncommonly paranoid about its people gaining access to information and ideas from the Western and democratic worlds. 

   Meanwhile, the broader policy effects of that crackdown include the expansion of an already extensive ban to include new online services and applications. The Facebook-owned properties Instagram and WhatsApp have both been ordered to be blocked throughout the country in recent weeks. When they go into effect, those will join existing, across-the-board bans on Facebook itself, and on Twitter.

   Ironically, though, regimes officials are not subject to these bans, and they violate their own ostensibly moral restrictions on a regular basis. President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khamenei both use Twitter to communicate with international groups of followers. It is a remarkably convenient arrangement for a government that is currently represented on the international stage by a famous pragmatic president, who was elected last year. 

   While restrictions on free speech and free thought continue unabated inside Iran, Rouhani and his colleagues are free to express a sanitized image of the theocracy, through a medium that cannot even be accessed by anyone but the most tech savvy of Iranians. Of course, that sanitization can only have a certain amount of effectiveness when elements of the government are calling for the appearance in court of “American Zionists” and making international headlines with their web-based repression. 

   Nevertheless, it is clear that the Iranian regime is as committed as ever to making sure that the internet is a one-way filter. That is, the mullahs are striving to control it in a way that allows them to keep Western influences as bay in order to prevent the people from spreading defiant communications. But at the same time, they allow information to spread to the outside world, warning Iranians and foreigners alike about the consequences of interfering with the censorship. 

 

   Of course, with the internet being the free marketplace of information that it is in democratic nations, there is no way for the regime to prevent it from serving as a tool for telling the true story of what life is like under comprehensive Iranian repression.

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