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Digital freedom
8 min read

The Mullahs’ inroads into social media

Internet freedom is highly restricted in Iran. Low speed connections, blocked sites and internet blackouts are just a couple of examples of how the government attempts to strangle internet. An anonymous journalist from Iran writes for PEN/Opp about the country’s paradoxical internet censorship. Despite the ban on social media, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are being used more and more frequently by the country’s top leaders.

Credits Text: Anonymous the country's paradoxical internet censorship May 06 2014

Iranians may be preoccupied with overwhelmingly compounding financial dilemmas and their country's protracted nuclear standoff with the world, but the Internet and its surrounding headache remains to be a major source of discontent, particularly among the tech-savvy young generation. This is nine months into the presidency of the self-declared “moderate” president, Hassan Rouhani, who took power last summer beating a pool of conservative rivals after campaigning for greater freedom and less government intrusion, particularly online.

The omnipresent censorship, connection throttling, traffic monitoring and content blocking of the internet have become an accepted element of the web surfing experience in Iran for the population. Yet, they battle these measures, executed by an intricate mechanism that is frequently modified, on a daily basis through the pursuit of new methods to circumvent them.

The sale of so-called anti-filtering software—such as a virtual private network (VPN) that allows the user to appear as if they are based in another country, allowing them to bypass the filters—are illegal. But unofficial government estimates suggest local businesses and plentiful of internet cafés selling anti-filtering tools, such as a virtual private network (VPN), have a monthly income of between 40 to 50 billion rials—or nearly 1 million euros.

In the past decade, the level of these restrictions has had a direct correlation to the stability of politics in the country. In 2009, when a disputed presidential election sparked widespread and unprecedented street protests, the authorities clamped down on the internet and also used it to gain the upper hand against dissenters who used social media networks to organize anti-government events. In 2013, in the run-up to the new vote that brought Rouhani to power, the regime chose to strangle the flow of information by choking internet speeds as a precaution. That poll was however held in peace. The internet then returned to its previous form, which even at the best of times is not great in Iran.

Majority of households are equipped with sub-par ADSL connections that on average about 256 kilobits per second. By comparison, any internet link below 12 megabits per second (12,288 kilobits) is hardly considered speedy by broadband consumers in the West. In Sweden, the average speed is 8.4 megabits per second, according to the latest State of the internet Report. Fast connections over telephone, such as LTE or 4G, are also unavailable in Iran. A mobile operate, RighTel, is the only operator that provides 3G connections, and its speeds max at 1 megabit per second for the astronomical price of nearly 8 euros for 2 gigabytes of data. But those who can afford faster connections in terms of Iranian standards have pioneered a fashionable trend by downloading pirated content, including movies, music and computer games. American hit series, such as HBO's Game of Thrones and Showtime’s Homeland—despite its anti-Iranian theme—have become radically popular in recent years. With no rules against such downloads, which make it technically legal to do so, the only hurdle is overcoming horrendously low speeds.

What else do Iranians do online? A peek at the most popular search terms—“sex,” “download,” “porn”—offers an expose of what the authorities fear the most: religious decadence and cultural depravation. This is how they justify targeting web content that they consider as immoral, un-Islamic and undermining their establishment.

The status quo however has changed since Rouhani took office in August. His Islamic Guidance and Culture Minister, Ali Janati, the son of one of the most powerful and conservative ayatollahs, said in early March that Iran must modernize itself in regards to the internet to be able to catch up with the reality of today's world.

“We cannot restrict the advance of (such technology) under the pretext of protecting Islamic values,” said the minister, recalling a state ban on fax machines and video tapes and players imposed after the 1979 Islamic revolution. “If we look back, we see many of the actions we took after the revolution were ridiculous.”

According to Janati, four million Iranians are active on Facebook, access to which is not only blocked but also illegal. These people form some of the most active social media members in the Middle East but have been forced to break the law by bypass restrictions fiercely put in place by the government, he said.

The admission comes as the president himself, Cabinet ministers and other officials have embraced the social media hemisphere. Among them are Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, First Vice President Es'hagh Jahangiri, and head of Iran’s Environmental Protection Organization Masoumeh Ebtekar.

Rouhani, a mid-ranking Shiite cleric, has maintained a lively presence on Facebook and Twitter, also a victim of Iran's censorship, as well as Instagram which has been surprisingly omitted from the list of at least 50 million webpages that are blocked to the general population in Iran, according to a March report by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Rouhani even chose to share with the world over a Tweet in September that he held a historic telephone conversation with US President Barack Obama, breaking a taboo of more than three decades with a first contact between the leaders of the two arch-enemies. He also posted a Rosh Hashanah blessing for the Jewish new year.

Zarif, the US-educated foreign minister, meanwhile, is undoubtedly the most well-known social media figure in the government, having nearly than 875,000 followers on Facebook alone. In the autumn of 2013, his page became a hotspot for Iranians seeking any news out of breathtaking negotiations he was holding with six world powers over Iran's controversial nuclear ambitions. During the talks, which eventually led to a long-elusive agreement in November, Zarif posted regular updates in Persian asking his followers to pray for his team of negotiators as he endeavored to bridge gaps and put an end to debilitating sanctions hurting the economy.

Zarif also operates the only “verified” account of an Iranian official on Twitter, where he posts in English. His first day on the social media grabbed headlines after he said Iran did not deny the Holocaust, a drastic U-turn from the stance of the previous administration of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had effectively made anti-Semite fervor a cornerstone of his eight-year tenure at Iran's highest elected office. “Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year,” Zarif tweeted, responding to Christine Pelosi, the daughter of former US House speaker Nanci Pelosi, when she said the new year would have been “sweeter” if Tehran ended its Holocaust denial.

But social media is not only populated by moderate and reformist Iranians. Avid supporters of the regime are also actively online. Even the hardline supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most powerful authority in Iran who is vexed by what officials call a creeping Westernization of Iran's Islamic culture, has been exceptionally active on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. His resourceful office is believed to operate those accounts.

Nonetheless, the administration's intention of employing greater tolerance on cultural, social and media freedom has faced a backlash from hardliners who hold sway over key establishment institutions and boards, including the Committee for Determining Offensive Contents that moderates Iran's internet regulations and spearheads efforts that have led to the Tehran regime becoming a leading suppressor of internet freedom.

“The officials should bear in mind that by violating the law they could be paving the way for others to violate the law,” police chief Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam said in December, responding to increasing calls from the cabinet for more online freedom. The restrictions are enforced by various units, including a Cyber Police outfit that monitors online activities. Although no Facebook user is rounded up merely for having joined the popular hub, the specialized unit persecutes dissent expressed online. This was displayed by a recent revelation that an Iranian-British woman, Roya Saberinejad Nobakht, has been jailed for more than five months after criticizing the Iranian government on her Facebook page while visiting the country. Such actions have let Iran to become, in the words of Reporters Without Borders, one of the “twelve enemies of the internet.” Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, has also ranked the Islamic state as “least free” country in terms of online liberties.

The spread of internet across the country meanwhile has occurred at a steady rate, alarming authorities wary of a more difficult task at hand in the near future of controlling Iran's young generations, comprising more than half of the 77 million population.

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