Iran is at it again. Already cited by Reporters Without Borders as being one of the twelve or thirteen “Enemies of the Internet”, Iran has given its opponents even more ammunition against its repressive regime. It was on Friday that an Iranian court ordered that the photo-sharing app, Instagram, be blocked from use of its citizens. It joins a long list of websites and other banned online activities. For example, Facebook (Instagram’s parent), Twitter, YouTube and Google Plus have already been banned. In fact, more than half of the 500 top websites are blocked by the tyrannical Iranian government.
After Israel, among all the other countries in the Middle East Iran has the highest percentage of its population online. Therefore the stakes are high. It wants to make sure that these people only get to see what the regime dictates. The names of the suppressing bodies sound almost surreal, like the Supreme Council of Virtual Space, or the Supreme Council of Cyberspace. But this is no joke. The effect of the censorship is genuine and aims to be total.
Yet even as Iran plies its censorship policies, some in the country’s leadership seem to be bucking the trend. For example, there are Instagram accounts in the names of President Hassan Rouhani and, believe it or not, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni. And the Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif has been no stranger to Twitter. The same free access is not, however, enjoyed by all Iranians. Those familiar with technology have successfully navigated around these blockades using VPNs and other workarounds. The less tech-savvy citizens are left in the dust and in the dark.
One might be tempted to think that the tide in favor of freedom is turning because of the president’s social media usage. Rouhani and his administration have often taken to social media to communicate with a world wrestling over its nuclear ambitions. In fact, he said last week, according to the official IRNA news agency. “Why are we so shaky? Why don’t we trust our youth?” If his passions are genuine then it raises the question of just who is running the show in Iran. The truth is that the power rests in the hands of the clergy and the other hardliners. They decry social media as an evil and accuse Rouhani of allowing what they see as degenerate western culture to seep into Iran. What they consider decadent, however, is arguable. The other day police arrested six youths who had the audacity to dance on an online video. They then beamed the arrest and the dance footage over state television as a warning to others.
Aforementioned entities such as the Supreme Council of Cyberspace and the Supreme Council of Virtual Space are two example of the vigorous attempt by government to control the Internet in Iran. As a result of their initiatives, every ISP must be approved by the Telecommunication Company of Iran and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. According to new directives from them, ISPs are required to store all the data sent or received by each of their clients. And they must maintain these records for three months minimum. The Iranian police chief said that the Islamic Republic was developing software to control social networking sites. Heretofore, SmartFilter was used as the primary engine of Iran’s censorship. Other means of stifling Internet access are being explored.
These steps have been taken to fight what Khameni calls a “culture invasion” and likens the intervention to that of the US and the West in the Ukrainian crisis. And because he, not President Rouhani is in control and has the final say on all state matters, the prospects for Internet freedom rebounding are not good. The hope is that technology, like VPNs, will continue to advance and hopefully outpace the oppressive practices of the Iranian regime.