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Vise Tightens on Iranian Internet Users

by JOSH SHAHRYAR

29 Apr 2011 18:44Comments
30274057-1039217.jpgWorld's 'least free' online environment, and more restrictions on the way.

[ comment ] Iran has finally managed to top a global list, but not one to be proud of. A new report by Freedom House ranks Iran "least free" when it comes to Internet freedom. The report, "Freedom on the Net 2011: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media" ranks Estonia as the freest, followed closely by the United States and Germany. The criteria used to determine the rankings are obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights, according to OpenNet Initiative.

Distressingly, the list also cites democracies like Pakistan and Turkey for enforcing "substantial censorship of political or social issues in 2009-10." North Korea of course beats everyone in that category, but lack of data seems to have absolved Kim Jong-Il from beating Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Thanks to its consistent boasting about the level of "freedoms" it provides its population, Iran could not escape the knife.

In the past couple of years, Iran's oppression of its netizens has been fully exposed, so there really isn't much to be surprised about here. What is surprising is that unlike North Korea and recently Egypt, Iran cannot simply pull the plug on the Internet countrywide. The Internet's economic power is too great for the Iranian government to deprive its population of such a vital resource and, in turn, the same population continues to use the Internet to express its dissent.

What's disheartening in this story is it makes clear that the international community is making Internet freedom a very low priority. If countries like Turkey and Pakistan can get away with restricting freedoms and continue to enjoy Western support, then Iran and others like it have little reason to hesitate in imposing restrictions on Internet use and curtailing this basic freedom.

I recently spoke to an Iranian friend in Tehran about the situation. Not only was he gravely worried about the restrictions imposed on the Internet, he complained about similar restrictions on cell phone and landline use and even snail mail. According to him, the danger is no longer limited to dissidents who use the Internet to speak up against the government; ordinary citizens also have to watch what they are transmitting online for fear of getting nabbed on suspicion of anti-government activities.

And the government seems to be doing more than just upholding restrictions that were put in place in the aftermath of anti-government protests in 2009. OpenNet Initiative explains:

One of Iran's most recent attempts at further internet censorship has been the introduction of plans for a "halal internet" a nation-wide intranet conforming to Islamic principles with the aim of countering the "western-dominated" internet. According to Iran's head of economic affairs, the "halal internet" would be a means of improving communication and trade links with the world and would be "aimed at Muslims on an ethical and moral level." Critics suspect the halal internet would ultimately withhold information from the public and be subject to extensive censorship.

When exactly these new restrictions will be applied is anyone's guess. Once they are imposed, the only way to find out if they are working is to follow any future protests in Iran, check the flow of news out of the country, and then compare it to the rate of flow from previous protests. Only then can we know if the new strategy will work.

In the meantime, it seems harder days await Internet users in Iran.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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