Extolling reform, Iran is still cracking down and blocking sites

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

July 2, 2015

After the heavily-contested 2009 elections saw activists use social media to organize and gain worldwide attention, the Iranian government woke up to the fact that the Internet was a force to be reckoned with. They transformed their very basic Web censorship and surveillance systems into an entirely new beast.

But, here it is, two years on and after two years of supposed reform, and Iran is still imprisoning users and blocking sites. This has led to increased use of VPNs, and it has been pointed out that this practice may be sanctioned with a wink and a nod by some in the government. A Daily Dot article sheds some light on the motivation behind this apparent paradox of censoring on one hand and, fostering circumvention on the other.

The obvious question is, why is this happening? The answer is as old as time- simply money. It is estimated that about seven of ten young Iranians use VPN, despite the “war” against the anti-censorship technology, and that this could not happen without government acquiescence, if not outright endorsement. Indeed, government-sanctioned bank payment services are used by many to purchase VPN subscriptions! This would not be allowed if not for the government’s quiet cooperation.

This situation has led to the phenomena of repression on one hand, and collaboration on the other. But even if blanket bans are relaxed in favor of more fine-grained blocking, a slightly more open Iranian network is of little benefit when Iranian net users continue to receive arbitrary and draconian punishments for expressing their opinions online.

President Hassan Rouhani, and many in his cabinet, are well known for using popular public social media networks, for example, which are banned in Iran. But the imprisonment and possible death sentence revocation recently of dissident Soheil Arabi is a stark reminder that not much has changed in Iran over the years.

For a long time Iran has engaged in “intelligent filtering” of content deemed unacceptable to the Revolutionary Guard. While such filtering practices may, in theory, lead to wider acceptance of some services, more likely it is a strategy to tighten the government’s grip and control over the content on those platforms, as is evident in the treatment of its citizens.

In February, twelve Iranian Facebook users were arrested on charges of “spreading corruption and (attempting) to change family lifestyles.” Last year eight more Facebook users were similarly arrested for a variety of charges, including blasphemy, propaganda against the ruling system, and insulting the country’s supreme leader. They were sentenced to seven to twenty years behind bars.

This censorship is appalling, but what is even more worrisome, and a question that should be on every right-thinking person’s mind, is if we cannot countenance Iran’s behavior in an area so open and public as the Internet, then how can we possibly trust Iran with transparency in their nuclear ambitions?

Rouhani’s duplicitous behavior of the past two years on the Internet issue does not engender trust in the regime. Let this be a cautionary tale for those who would seek to give them the means to acquire an other-than-peaceful nuclear program…

Editor’s comment: As always, Stan’s views are his alone, and should not be seen as reflecting those of the rest of the BestVPN staff.

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