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Oppression 2.0: Iranian Discontent in Cyberspace


22 Jul 2011 12:32Comments
iran-internet-police-1.jpgDissent via social media vs. censorship, Cyber Army, and the 'Halal Internet.'

[ overview ] The state of Iranian cyberspace is yet another example of the repressive relationship between the Islamic Republic's government and the people of Iran. A report by Freedom House this April ranked Iran last in regards to Internet freedom. This dismal ranking is based on Iran's "extensive and sophisticated methods of control," which include "tampering with Internet access, mobile-telephone service, and satellite broadcasting; hacking opposition and other critical websites; monitoring dissenters online and using the information obtained to intimidate and arrest them." Yet in spite of the severe restrictions on web usage, Iranians have remained resilient in their attempts to voice their political opinions in the world of social media -- to a degree far greater than is possible in their everyday lives offline. While institutionalized repression precedes the strict government Internet censorship that followed the disputed 2009 presidential vote, a 2008 study by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society cited Iran's blogosphere as the fourth largest in world, with an estimated 60,000 blogs or more.

According to the Open Net Initiative and the World Bank, the number of Iranian Internet users has grown sharply: a nation that had fewer than one million Internet users in 2005 had 23 million only three years later, setting Iran miles ahead of its Middle Eastern neighbors. The most recent available statistics are from 2009, when 38.3 percent of the Iranian population had access to the Internet. But since that year and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection, the Iranian regime has revved up its oppressive tactics, targeting those who express independent voices of dissent via cyberspace. While Iran has attempted to enhance broadband penetration in the country, regulatory policies and censorship actions keep household and public Internet speed at a snail's pace to restrict multimedia downloads and high-speed services. Out of fear that people will organize through social media and other platforms, the regime continues to block, filter, and censor content that has the potential to connect and empower Iranians.

No longer a nebulous buzzword, social media is now part of the modern lexicon. Webster's defines it as any form of electronic communication that creates online communities to share information, ideas, and personal content. Similar to older forms of communication such as television, radio, and print, it too can be used for various purposes ranging from basic entertainment to a catalyst for political change. It can be used to promote trade, innovation, even peace itself, or it can be employed to advocate hatred and terrorism.

The Green Movement in Iran and the protests following the 2009 election were the first occasion in the Middle East that social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging were used in the coordination of large-scale popular demonstrations. Although it failed to bring change in the short term, the Green Movement served as a harbinger for future movements showcasing the role of social media in rallying the masses, ultimately leading to the downfall of longstanding rulers Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. But it is incorrect to identify the social media phenomenon as the cause of these popular movements. There were certainly larger forces shaping the Arab Spring: a disproportionate number of young unemployed adult males, floundering economies, and deep-seated sociopolitical grievances were but a few of the motivating forces that led to the uprisings across the Arab world. These forces are the substance; social media is but a fitting means to focus and amplify their effect.

And from another perspective, there is precedent for much of the role that communication technology has played here. For example, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was the first of its kind to take full advantage of radio, tapes, and television. The American Revolution was the first to successfully exploit the printing press, and it was soon followed by the French Revolution. The human motivations that underlie revolutions remain essentially the same; however, the forms of communication and rate at which events unfold have dramatically changed. What might have taken months to unfold in Egypt and Tunisia occurred in a matter of days, even hours, as the use of Facebook, Twitter, and text messages served as a catalyst for the opposition's rapid increase in strength. In short, social media reduced the cost of coordination and facilitated collective action that might otherwise have been stifled.

Yet just as average citizens have enhanced their ability to access information and organize through online communities, repressive governments have also become better at using these tools to suppress dissent. For every attempt at reform, we see reactionary responses by governments that seek to maintain the status quo and erect barriers to people's access to information. In the Islamic Republic, the already censored Internet is being severed from the rest of the world through the establishment of a closed intranet system, dubbed the "Halal Internet." And even that does not satisfy the regime.

Enter the Iranian Cyber Army. While the government builds a virtual wall around its own people, the Cyber Army wages a war against the free flow of ideas and information through the use of online scare tactics ranging from coordinating intimidating commentary on Facebook and popular blogs to hacking into public websites.

Since the summer of 2009, the Iranian Cyber Army has successfully executed a number of attacks on high-profile websites, including Twitter, Voice of America, and China's largest search engine, Baidu, as well as opposition websites such as Radio Zamaneh and others. There have also been endless accounts of cyberharassment intended to disrupt free and open discussion. According to Wired, online intruders consistently propagate messages on dissident Facebook pages for the purpose of generating chaos and undermining constructive dialogue and discourse. Although the intimidating language and scare tactics waged by the Iranian Cyber Army are not directly as consequential as the regime's use of force in real life, their intent stems from the same root. Similar to the security apparatus in real life, the Iranian Cyber Army seeks to induce fear and chaos in an attempt to hinder any web-based Iranian opposition movement.

While the links between the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian Cyber Army have not been officially acknowledged, in 2010 the head of the Guards' Ali Ebn-e Abitaleb corps in Qom, Ebrahim Jabbari noted the corps' success in creating what he termed the second largest cyber army in the world. According to Defence Tech, an online publication for cybersecurity issues, the Guards' cyber division invested $76 million to confront, target, and identify online dissidents. In taking their repressive tactics to another level, the Guards announced new plans to build a cyber command to counter what they term "soft war" attacks on Iran that are ideologically driven either by internal or external entities.

The most visible attack on Iranian systems was the Stuxnet worm, a computer virus designed to affect systems related to Iran's controversial nuclear program. While the regime stokes fears about further cyberwarfare -- fears useful in justifying continued repression of thoughts and ideas that are not necessarily related to cybermilitary conflicts -- the Guards have made grand statements about their own prowess and retaliatory plans. According to Brigadier General Farzad Esmaili, commander of the Khatam al-Anbiya Air Defense Base, Iranians have the "the necessary capabilities and knowledge to counter cyberattacks." Referencing past attempts at cyberinterference, he declared, "Our enemies should know that the more sanctions and threats against us are intensified, the stronger we become."

Meanwhile, the Obama administration continues to push Internet freedom as a policy priority. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on the international community to safeguard freedom of expression, association, and assembly in the online world just as they should offline: "The rights of individuals to express their views freely, petition their leaders, worship according to their beliefs -- these rights are universal, whether they are exercised in a public square or on an individual blog." This commitment must also take the form of proactive steps and durable solutions for people around the world. Dr. Gary Shiffman, director of homeland security studies at the Georgetown University Center for Peace and Security Studies and managing director of the Chertoff Group, expressed his belief to the authors that "Iranians, with the help of advanced technologies and tools, could potentially protect themselves" from the regime's watchful eye and communicate safely.

Authoritarian regimes have long fought to silence opposition and limit free expression. Their desire to repress remains the same, but the vehicle and tools for that repression have changed over time. Iran propagates repression of free ideas even on the micro-level of Facebook pages and individual tweets. To the Iranian regime, organized dialogue online is viewed as, if not even more, dangerous than mass protests in the streets.

In an interview with the Iran Media Program, Iran-based blogger Amir-Hossein shared his outlook on the Iranian blogosphere since the aftermath of the 2009 election. He noted that "social movements and movements such as blogging are like [the] movement of waves. You cannot [easily] say whether it is on the rise or it is falling. These are rising waves, which will have their corrective falls following them. I think we are at the end of a downward corrective slope of the blogosphere which is a prelude to a more vibrant presence.... I can see each and every blogger finding solutions for their problems of writing to adapt themselves to this new atmosphere." It is this adaptation and resilience, with the assistance of new technologies, that will help Iranians break away from the regime's seeming omnipresence and allow their voices the free expression that is their right.

For more in-depth information on Internet security, freedom, and human rights in Iran, see the "Iran Human Rights Review: Access to Information" report, published by the Foreign Policy Centre in London.

Amir Bagherpour is a Ph.D. candidate at the Claremont School of Politics and Economics. He is a West Point graduate and former officer in the U.S. Army. He also holds an MBA from the University of California, Irvine. Roya Soleimani holds a M.A. in Arab/Middle Eastern Studies from Georgetown University and a B.A. in Political Science and Public Policy from the University of California, Berkeley. Amir and Roya are research analysts for Voice of America's Persian News Network's recently established Research Desk, based in Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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