One of the most pressing concerns for ideological and totalitarian governments is the control of information. The manifestation of new internet technology has caused a temporary time out in that process. In the early days of the internet, although the number of users was very limited, and Farsi websites were not common yet, it was possible to access information online without restriction. Within a short time, the totalitarian government figured out the political danger this free space presented to their regime. The government started to filter the internet, beginning with websites with pornographic content and continuing to politically oriented sites. Later, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter were also filtered as they encouraged certain political and social developments. Internet speed has also become an instrument exploited by the government by intentionally disrupting internet access. However, these controls do not satisfy the totalitarians who are dreaming of a “national internet (intranet)” and total control of data. A couple of months ago, Reporters without Borders (RSF) released a report, labeling Iran, as well as China, Russia, Bahrain and Vietnam – the five enemy states of the internet. According to this report, Iran intends to increase its supervision on the net and create a “national” or “Halal” internet (intranet). (1)
One of the tools the Iranian government uses to control the flow of information on the net is through the passing of laws and regulations that provide a legal credence to their actions. In 2001, the High Council of Cultural Revolution passed the “directive of the general policies of computer information networks” and it was signed by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. (2) This directive established a committee which consisted of representatives from the Ministry of Intelligence, Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, national Radio and Television, and later representatives of the Islamic Publicity Organization joined as well. The responsibility of this committee was to determine which websites needed to be blocked. The cat and mouse game between the Iranian government and the internet users began that day. The government would block websites and the users would look for ways to evade the filtration. It went so far, that according to the councilor of the Iranian Judiciary, the number of blocked websites numbered over five million. Abdolsamad Khorramabadi, a reporter from Mehr news agency stated, “The majority of these websites contain immoral and anti-social content, and are legally blocked. People spend many hours every day on various websites and this action has destructive effects. The Internet inflicts much harm to the society and planning is needed to reduce these harms that are presented by enemies. The enemies are trying to attack our religious identity by misusing the internet.” (3) The protection of Iranian religious identity is the government’s main argument used to justify controlling the net.
Internet and Politics
Currently, the filtration of websites can be triggered by publicizing content incompatible with Islamic values, opposing the constitution, insulting the Supreme Leader, causing pessimism and disappointment in people regarding the legitimacy and efficiency of the Islamic regime and publicizing and propaganda for illegal parties. The filtration increases during specific political events. The government even tries to limit the flow of information by reducing internet connection speeds.
For instance, a short time before the 2009 Iranian presidential election, Facebook, the most popular social network in Iran, was blocked. Even G-mail and Yahoo email could not be accessed in Iran at times when protesters planned to hold demonstrations against the disputed outcome of the elections. In March 2012, Alef website reported that “access to e-mail services has slowed down last week too. This triggered protests from the users and the media, but neither communications officials nor security officials offered any response to the problem. Considering the fact that more and more businesses use e-mail, disconnecting the services without prior notice causes vast troubles. Apparently those engaged in cutting e-mail services do not know much about the dimensions of the anti-security outcomes and how much descent their actions cause among the intelligence specialists; and have no regard for public opinion and the Iranian people.” (4)
Fighting back against filtering
Iranian internet users have tried to fight back in two ways. The first method is through letter writing campaigns and protests to try and have their voices heard by the authorities. The second method is to try and create ways to go around the filtering to access websites. Some designers of these proxies such as Hossein Ronaghi Maleki have been sentenced to imprisonment.
In one instance, more than a hundred people active in the media signed a statement which objected to the actions of the “filtering committee” that had limited certain news agencies and news websites. The statement partly read, “One of the most important problems for the media to act in this area is the plurality of the decision making centers on the issue. It has adverse and costly effects when any of those decision making centers gain practical powers to enforce their view points in the media without having to offer any acceptable reasons or excuses or without any legal process. A nonrelated authority calling an official outlet and asking them to either omit some material from their page or face filtration, has become a trend that has been on going in the past year.” (5)
There are groups who try to provide people with anti-filter software and proxies so that they can surf the internet freely. For example, the Deutsche Welle Persian website has tried to open the path for its readers through this technique. (6) Another example of this would be the Committee against Censorship in Iran, or Iran Proxy which tries to teach ways of escaping filtration by creating different blogs. Hossein Ronaghi Maleki, an official of this committee who worked under the pseudonym Babak Khorramdin, was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of Tazir (calculated by Islamic metrics), after his real identity was discovered. (7)
The National Internet Project
When the Iranian government was faced with a wave of anti-filter software allowing users to get around the government sponsored filters, they decided to increase their control over cyber space through a new idea. BBC Persian reports that the Iranian government has proposed the idea of a “national internet” as a solution to the problem of internet connections and threats of cyber attacks. However, research by the BBC shows that the result of this project is a network only seen in North Korea. Observers warn that “Iran might give up walking on the information superhighway by cutting away from the internet and be satisfied with walking the alleys of an intranet, separated from the outside world.” (8)
The news of the efforts by the government to start the “national internet” and cut the connections to the global network has evoked fear in Iranian users. In reality, it is a step that if taken, Iranian users would be put on a separated island and would lose the ability to freely access information forever. Although this dream of the government and nightmare of the people has not yet been realized, many Iranian youth fear that the final phase of this project will soon be announced.
Free access to information: a basic right
According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, free access to information is a basic human right and no government can infringe on this clear right. The 19th Article of the declaration reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” However, the Iranian government has infringed on this right by passing laws, filtering internet websites, keeping internet speed low and disrupting the internet on specific days. If finalized, the project of a national internet would not leave any opportunity to access and distribute information freely.
Lastly, we can consider the free flow of information as a right which when violated, leads to the violation of other rights, because the people who can access information freely, can recognize their rights and can express the violation of their human rights to other citizens and people all around the world.
Source: Iran Human Rights Voice
In two separate statements, the United States called on the Iranian government to heed its people’s will after the surprise election of Hassan Rouhani in the first round of presidential elections. The Obama administration also “remains ready to engage with the Iranian government directly” to reach a diplomatic solution in the long standoff over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program.
On June 4, the United States sanctioned a major network of front companies for hiding assets on behalf of Iranian leaders. The Treasury targeted The Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order and 37 ostensibly private businesses under it. Many are front companies involved in real estate, construction, banking, and other sectors of Iran’s economy. “While the Iranian government’s leadership works to hide billions of dollars in corporate profits earned at the expense of the Iranian people, Treasury will continue exposing and acting against the regime’s attempts to evade our sanctions and escape international isolation,” said Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen. The Obama administration has implemented four rounds of sanctions in the past week alone. The following are excerpts from the press release, including a link to the full text at the end.
On June 3, the United States imposed sanctions for the first time on Iran’s currency, the rial. Foreign financial institutions may now face penalties if they “knowingly conduct or facilitate significant transactions” involving the rial― which has already lost half its value since January 2012. The executive order’s objective is to render the currency unusable outside of Iran, a senior administration official said during a conference call. Iran conducts very little trade in the rial. So the measure may also be aimed at further depreciating its value and making Iranians feel more uneasy about holding their own currency. The executive order also authorizes new penalties on Iran’s automotive industry. And it allows the sanctioning of any individuals who help Iranians and others previously blacklisted by the Treasury.
It’s been four years since the disputed Iranian presidential elections that resulted in massive uprisings and a brutal crackdown including extra-judicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrest, and detention; and infringements of rights to freedom of assembly and expression. Today—in the lead up to the June elections—we are witnessing the largest wave of detention of journalists since 2009. Opposition candidates remain on house arrest, and at least 500 political prisoners remain behind bars. Women and religious minorities are barred from running for president. And yet, Supreme Leader Ali Khameini has said Iran’s elections are “free” and the media „shouldn’t constantly say elections must be free.”
We say that elections are not fair or free until all political prisoners in Iran are free. Elections are not fair or free until every citizen has equal opportunity to engage in the electoral process. Elections are not fair or free as long as the Iranian government vets candidates, restricts activities of political parties and forces votes from citizens. Elections are not fair and free when citizen voices are silenced.
Join us in demanding that Iranian officials allow for the conduct of genuine, democratic elections that uphold internationally accepted standards of “free and fair,” and that the Iranian government:
Release all political prisoners;
End all restrictions on media, free expression, and assembly;
Allow every citizen equal opportunity to engage in the electoral process;
Allow for independent observation of its presidential elections.
Join us in taking up the call that “Elections Aren’t Free Until We Are All Free.”
Email us if you are interested in spearheading or participating in actions around the world in the upcoming months: firstname.lastname@example.org. More information will be coming soon!