How Iran Silences Its Citizens on the Web

Chris DeVito is the director of Iran180, a nonprofit seeking to change the Iranian government’s treatment of its citizens. His writing and analysis has appeared in major news outlets, including Foreign Policy and The Huffington Post.

Imagine you live in a country where there is heavily restricted access to the Internet. Websites deemed objectionable are blocked. Even when government censors don’t directly vet content, writers practice a high degree of self censorship. The few publications that deviate from this standard are regularly shut down, and those responsible for producing them face potentially serious legal repercussions.

This is the daily reality for citizens of Iran, where access to the Internet has been limited since the presidential elections in 2009, when Twitter and YouTube users informed the world about what was happening on the ground in Tehran. As the government in Iran faces increasing external pressure from a range of international actors, it is clearly grasping for any and all tools to assert its authority at home. This has meant cracking down on all online activity. The abuses fall into four distinct categories.

1. Censorship: The basis of censorship in Iran, both overt and self-imposed, lies in the law. The constitution makes clear that “publications and the press have freedom of expression, except when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of [the state and religion].” Furthermore, writings “critical of the government and not in the best interest of the community” are illegal. Violating these provisions can be considered a capital offense. These standards are so broad, that any and all speech, including speech on the web, can easily be categorized as a violation.

2. Monitoring the Web: The Iranian government makes monitoring web activity an important element of its authoritarian toolkit. The government makes explicit use of web monitoring software, and actively tracks usage manually from public access points. It collects passwords, login details, and other information from individuals, and tracks social network usage.

3. Tampering with the Architecture: The Iranian government poses tremendous challenges to those seeking to transmit information online or even conduct a basic Google search. The government requires all internet service providers (ISPs) to obtain licenses. All ISPs must purchase their bandwidth via government controlled access service providers.

These effectively government-controlled ISPs are also required by law to deploy filtering systems targeting content deemed “objectionable.” ISPs are then held liable if any “illegal” content ends up on a site. An inter-agency panel of political appointees determines what is acceptable. In Iran, home internet connections operate at a snail’s pace, with a maximum speed of just 128 kilobytes per second, and 56 kilobytes on average.

4. Distributing False or Counter Information: On top of all this, the few websites Iranians can view without obstruction feature content produced by government entities. The purpose of this effort is to make it clear to Iran’s citizens that the government’s authority extends everywhere, even cyberspace. Regime officials have claimed to sponsor more than 10,000 blogs.

These challenges are becoming more significant. In recent months, the government has announced that it intends to pursue a national intranet, which some believe is meant to replace the world wide web. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei also said that he intends to create a Supreme Council of Virtual Space to monitor and oversee internet policy, and digital rights activists have uncovered software designed to track Iranian dissidents.

People who work in the tech space in Iran acutely feel the threats posed by this environment. Take for instance the horror confronted by Saeed Malekpour, a Canadian-Iranian facing the death penalty because a file-sharing program he developed was used to upload pornography to the web. His innocuous programming is considered a crime because software developers can be held liable if consumers “inappropriately” use their products.

Being active online today in Iran is fraught with risks that most readers living in democratic societies cannot imagine. This may be the most important reason for world leaders and diplomatic representatives of the free world to put digital freedom on the agenda. Only with sustained pressure can Iran’s netizens get the tools they need to fight for a better future.

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26 May 2024

25 05 2024