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Iran strangles Internet

When the internet was introduced in Iran in the early 1990s, the young generation was given an opportunity to circumvent the regime's information monopoly and put themselves in contact with the surrounding world for the first time. Today, the country has the highest number of Internet users in the Middle East. However, the regime has caught up with the technological developments and has become more adept at blocking the holes in the machinery of censorship. An anonymous journalist inside Iran writes about the constant tug of war between the regime and the Internet users.

Text: Anonymous Illustration: Johan Rutherhagen June 10 2013

Iran is drastically curtailing access to the Internet, according to media reports and net users bemoaning increasingly slow speeds, intermittent breakdowns, and widespread restrictions at a politically-charged time when the Islamic regime is bracing to hold its first presidential election in four years.

Newspapers have reported in recent weeks that Internet service providers in Iran are unable to address “a widespread disruption” which has affected local businesses, bank clients, students, and even government organizations. Complaints of sluggish service are rejected, however, by state authorities, who insist everything is “normal.”

“We have not lowered the speed,” Mahmoud Khosravi, managing director of Iran’s telecommunication infrastructure company, told the Iranian Labor News Agency, “nor is there any limitation in providing service.”

But net users tell a different story. “The connection drops every ten minutes. And when it is working, it is super slow,” said Kaveh, who refused to be fully named for fear of state retribution. “You see, I work at a travel agency. You lose customers when you can’t make a reservation in time.”

Internet speeds even at the best of times are not great in Iran where, according to latest figures by its Internet Development Center, 45 million people are connected to the Internet, making it the largest group of general users in the Middle East. But nearly two-thirds of them use their cell phones to go online, using an outdated GPRS technology that offers excruciatingly slow service. Only 3.5 million—less than eight percent—have high-speed ADSL, and that itself is according to Iranian standards. To get a service faster than 512 kilobits per second in Iran, one has to demonstrate a professional need for such bandwidth. By comparison, in today’s fast evolving world of technology, anything below 10 megabits per second is hardly considered high speed by broadband consumers. In Iran, meanwhile, an ADSL connection of 4 megabits, for example, has become available only recently, and is reserved for business owners.

The Internet was introduced to Iran in the late 90s. With it came an opportunity for the young generation to challenge the regime’s monopoly of information and get in touch with the outside world. But the regime, seeing the Internet as part of a “soft war” waged by the West to target its revolutionary values, has developed a keen inclination to moderate access to it, and controls, through a systematic filtering mechanism, what Iranians can surf, upload, post and watch on the net.

Thus tech-savvy Iranians have grown accustomed to these restrictions. For years, they utilized various methods and software, including web proxy services and the Virtual Private Network (VPN), to experience a filter-free access to the net, albeit at visibly slower speeds. But most of those tools have been blocked since March, according to reports from Iranian state media. An MP in charge of the parliament’s telecommunication committee was widely reported in early March as saying that protocols used by VPNs—to make the computer appear as if it is based in another country and thus allowing it to bypass the filters—had been blocked by the government. Ramezan-Ali Sobhani-Fard said, without going into details, that the measures taken to do so had also contributed to slowing the speeds. Although the sale and use of VPNs has always been verboten in Iran, they were as common among tech-savvy users as the illegal satellite dish installed by Iranians to watch channels beamed into the country from abroad. According to Kamal Hadian-Far, head of a specialized cyber unit, at least 20 percent of web surfers in Iran used VPNs, which were available at a monthly rate of as low as 5 USD.

“You had a choice in picking your VPN. I used one that would connect me to servers in Germany, France, Canada and the United States,” said Emad, a 23-year-old university student who recently went from one shop to another at a Tehran computer center asking for a working VPN. To no avail. “Having spent a few days asking everyone I know, I have yet to find one.”
The new crackdown on VPNs and other filter-bypassing software adds to the rigid online censorship the regime has imposed for years. Tahmineh, mother of three, said the new restrictions had made it difficult to keep in touch with her loved ones.
“The net is so slow that I can barely have a coherent conversation,” she said of phone calls she used to make online to speak to her children, who all live abroad. “And VPN is not functioning anymore. So I have said goodbye to chatting online or checking Facebook to see what my children are up to.”

Iran blocks access to Facebook, along with most social networking sites, on official grounds that they operate against “Islamic and revolutionary values.” But the site is one of the most popular online destinations for Iranians, including the older generation, who spend a few hours every day catching up with friends, even though logging onto the site is a crime under Iran’s cyber regulations. But the rules seem to bypass the supreme leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, who, under Iran’s constitution, has the ultimate say on all matters. Khamenei opened a Facebook page in mid-December, reportedly operated by his office. The page, which only features posts about his previous activities and recent speeches, created an uproar among Iranians, with his avid supporters rejoicing and his critics questioning why it was not illegal for Khamenei to log onto Facebook.

Iran’s extensive and at times arbitrary filtering system has also targeted numerous other sites, including widely used global sites like Twitter and YouTube, as well as pornographic hubs and the online pages of many Western media outlets. The attack on the Internet is said to be orchestrated by the regime’s hardline network overseer, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, which reports directly to Khamenei. In June 2009, the Internet facilitated the organization of massive street protests against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by pre-reform supporters, who claimed the incumbent had secured a second term through voter fraud. At the time, online images of violence against the protesters, who were known as the Green Movement, spread like wildfire, while foreign media, ordered off the streets by the authorities, were banned from covering the anti-regime demonstrations. The events of 2009 rattled the very foundation of the Islamic republic, provoking infighting among regime insiders and setting a precedent for street protests unsanctioned by the regime, an action unprecedented in the more than three decades since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The rallies were eventually suppressed by brutal force, and the Green Movement, whose leaders Mirhossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karoubi remain incommunicado under house arrest, has all but disappeared.

But the memories of that election haunt the clerical establishment to this day. Wary of a recurrence as presidential polls open on June 14 this year, the regime is taking precautions to reduce such potentially existential threats. For instance, the hardline electoral watchdog, the Guardian Council, has cleared only eight candidates, out of nearly 700 registrants, to contest for Iran’s highest elected office. The candidates, most of whom have conservative tendencies, have been handpicked from among those most loyal to Khamenei, to reduce any risk of challenge to his rule. Even two would-be heavyweights, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad’s controversial protégé Esfaniyar Rahim Mashayi, have been barred from running. Analysts say their exclusion, coupled with the fresh crackdown on the Internet, is aimed at ensuring an uneventful election.

“Given what happened four years ago,” says Hamed, a student of political science at Tehran University, who did not want to be fully identified, “the regime is not leaving anything to chance. They want to make sure all of their bases are covered, including the Internet. It is not an issue of impeding freedom of speech or blocking content they deem harmful for being un-Islamic, it is purely political.” Hamed continues: “Politics takes precedence over everything else in this country. How else could you justify bringing down the Internet to such a critical level that even your own businesses suffer?”
Such criticism is outright rejected by Iranian authorities, who insist they want to maximize the opportunities offered by the Internet and only reduce the “dangers” it poses to Iranian users.
“There are numerous parameters involved in deciding the speed of the Internet,” said a deputy telecommunications minister, Ali Hakim Javadi, as quoted by Iranian news agencies, “and the upcoming election is not one of them.” Referring to Iran’s stated plans of establishing its own internal network to offer an alternative to the Internet, he said, “We are only trying to make the most of the Internet, and also increasing its security.”
Javadi’s boss, North Korean-educated telecommunications minister Mohammad Hassan Nami, said in a recent interview with the Bahar newspaper, “We believe the Internet should be clean of criminal and depraved content. We have plans to do this.” Nami is an active member of the elite Revolutionary Guards, which has a tight grip on most power and economic institutions in Iran. He was recently appointed minister with the specific goal of finishing and launching Iran’s intranet.

Officials say the so-called National Information Network would provide a faster, more secure connection for state-owned organizations, and eventually for home users. But Iranians fear this would equip the regime with an off switch to shut down the Internet as it pleases.
“We all remember what happened to the Internet four years ago,” said Samira, a local journalist who did not want to be fully named. “And we can all imagine when [the intranet] is done, what will happen to the Internet at sensitive times. I already have nightmares about the day when it will be like the Internet was never here.”

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