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LOL -- Iran's SMS Boycott

by TARA MAHTAFAR in Tehran

13 Jul 2009 20:21No Comments
SMS boycott_2

Iranians getting the last laugh?

[TEHRAN BUREAU] Before the contested presidential election, Iranians shared millions of text or SMS messages every day. Then, just before the election, the state banned SMS to hamper organizational efforts of Mir Hossein Mousavi supporters. Once SMS service was restored, Mousavi supporters took a page out of Gene Sharp's "From Dictatorship to Democracy," which lists "non-consumption of boycotted goods" as a method of civil protest. Mousavi supporters are communicating their dissent with an embargo on communications, and Iran's largest mobile operator, Mobile Communications Company of Iran (MCI), a subsidiary of the state telecom monopoly (TCI) is the boycott's target.

MCI does not declare its revenues, but based on news releases and official statements it is possible to estimate figures. Last November, Communications Minister Mohammad Soleimani told Mehr News Agency, "80 million text messages are interchanged daily between Iranian cell phone subscribers." At the fixed rate of 150 rials per text message, that spells roughly 12,000,00,000 rials (about $1.2 million) per day in revenues from text messages.

Iranians caught onto the idea when BBC Persian announced that MCI had lost $14 million in just over a week since cutting text messaging services on June 11, the day before the election. The next day, "Boycott SMS!" chain emails appeared calling for mobile users to abstain from text messaging once service was restored.

The boycott call quickly spread through online outlets, including Balatarin.com, a popular social news website similar to Digg and Reddit. One publicly circulated email declared the following mantra for boycotters: "I refuse to generate revenues for a government that monitors my conversations and messages."

SMS service was restored on July 2 after a blackout of nearly three weeks. Among ten subscribers interviewed for this article, all ten said they had neither sent nor received any text messages since service was made available again.

When an art curator was asked how she coped with this handicap in communications, she considered it no big deal.

"What did we do before SMS existed?" she replied. "I'll call instead."

The argument has been made that replacing texting with telephoning could be counterproductive, because MCI charges more for calls than for SMS. But some point out that a great deal of SMS usage in Iran was superfluous, such as the widespread trend of forwarding "SMS jokes."

Iran counted 41 million cellular subscribers in 2008. The question is how many are required to observe the ban for it to have an impact?

"You don't need 100 percent of consumers on board for a boycott to work effectively," said the director of a major advertising firm in Tehran, who did not want to reveal his name. "Even a 20 percent drop in consumption is enough to hurt a company."

There are already signs that the boycott may be taking its toll on mobile operators. TCI shares on the Tehran Stock Exchange fell to an all-time low yesterday with a 6 percent drop over a two-week period, according to HAMNA, Iran's mobile communication news agency.

Iran Cell, the country's largest private operator, has also sustained losses. A senior executive of this company, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Tehran Bureau that Iran Cell was losing "close to $250,000 a day" because of the drop in SMS volume.

Text messaging had played a vital role in pre-election campaigning -- largely conveying anti-Ahmadinejad jokes and pro-Mousavi slogans -- and was used to disseminate information about grassroots efforts such as the "Green Human Chain" formed on the capital's longest avenue the Monday before the day of the vote.

As the Iranian regime continues to clamp down violently on nonviolent protestors, it is finding that massive public anger can manifest itself in new ways, provoking unanticipated threats to the once-unassailable status quo.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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