The most popular social networks, namely Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are already blocked throughout Iran, and these are set to be joined by LINE, WhatsApp, and Tango. All three apps provide free phone and messaging services, and while they were reportedly still accessible on Wednesday, the block was expected to take effect at any time.
Realistically, this ban will not actually prevent all Iranian citizens from accessing the apps. Tech-savvy Iranians routinely access the blocked social networks using web proxies and other technical tricks, but they can still be punished with long jail sentences and floggings for posts made to these networks, to which government officials have unfettered access.
Although Iranian internet blocks are not ironclad, they do prevent access for some citizens and for others they add considerable hassle to the simple process of accessing information. But these people may soon have help from beyond their borders. It was reported on Wednesday that the Canadian federal government had approved a nine million dollar investment in a “digital diplomacy project” by the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
IT World Canada indicates that, “Munk’s Digital Public Square Project was first launched during the lead-up to Iran’s 2013 presidential elections to offer dissidents and human rights activists in the country an online platform to air their thoughts without being censored by Tehran,” and that the newfound funding stands to improve the project and expand it to other places where internet access is restricted by the government, including the heavily Iranian-influenced Syria and Iraq.
One might expect that foreign projects to help work around Iranian restrictions on internet access would benefit from a keener understanding of the details of those restrictions. And if a report on the website of PBS television’s Media Shift is any indication, that is something that is being actively pursued in the West.
The report details the redirect that web users experience when they try to access a banned website, such as BBC News. It goes on to examine the different iterations of the directory of approved sites that then appears, which showcases not only the regime’s means of censorship, but also the thought process behind how it presents that censorship.
In the past, the directory was characterized by prominent religious imagery, suggesting that the censorship was done in the name of God. More recently, the presentation has been more subtle, evidently attempting to present such censorship as an ordinary part of the web experience in Iran, divorced from any obvious ideological motives. But of course the lists of banned and approved sites make clear that those motives have not changed in any detectable way.