Globe: Censorship in Iran
Almost 10 years after the deadly protests of 2009, Iranian protestors have taken to the streets again. In what started as an outcry over poor economic conditions has transformed into mass nation-wide protests against the Iranian regime itself. In everywhere from small towns to the Iranian capital of Tehran, protestors, most of which are in their 20’s, have voiced opposition to the Iranian state’s human rights record, or lack thereof. The Iranian regime as responded violently. Since the protests have begun, more than 20 people have been killed – most by the Iranian government. Hundreds have been arrested for opposing the regime – an act that can warrant the death penalty in Iran.
The Iranian government is trying to eviscerate the protests has fast as possible. One of the methods being utilized is increasing the censorship of online information sources. Iranian protestors have been using encrypted messaging apps such as the Russian-founded Telegram to organize protests, capture video of Iranian government abuse, and message other protestors throughout Iran. The regime has responded by cracking down on the messaging apps in order to disrupt the information channels being used by protestors in a kind-of divide and conquer campaign. The regime has stated that the censorship will only be uplifted once the protests have finished. Other information sources being censored include WhatsApp and Instagram
Iran’s crackdown on information sources is not unique to the recent protests. For years, the Islamic Republic has sought to filter the information within Iran. Iranian leadership has even suggested that it would create a unique state-controlled internet divorced from the influence of outside sources.
Iran has a censorship regime that works in a fashion to China’s “Great Firewall”, albeit less sophisticated and less reliant on modern technology. Since Iran lacks to resources to outright block internet services like China can, Iran instead promotes an agenda of asymmetric coercion against information sources. The state will temporarily block internet sites for a few days periodically. In doing so, the regime aims to coerce the Iranian people into using Iranian state-operated internet services in order to have more reliable service. This allows the state to have greater control of the information flow within the country, and it weaned the Iranian people off foreign sources viewed as a threat to the regime. For example, Iran will tamper with YouTube.com in an effort to drive people to YouTube.ir, which is faster and does not include footage of protests against the regime. Other social media sites such as Facebook are also censored by the regime.
But, as anyone who has been to public school in the digital age knows, there are always ways around blocks instituted by the authority. In Iran, Tor, a routing network that allows users to disguise their browsing requests – a useful serve in an authoritarian country – has achieved a high degree of popularity. When the state increased their censorship regimes, users dedicated to outfoxing the Islamic Republic Big Brother would use Tor’s Obfsproxy, which allows users to further avoid censorship efforts. These actions have made censorship difficult for the Iranian state.
The regime in Iran is particularly keen on disrupting information inflow for the sake of self-preservation. Fears of mass protests like the one currently occurring, or like the so-called “Green Revolution” of 2009, occupy the minds of Iranian censors. As the Iranian state is not remiss to killing protestors, video evidence of those actions could spread and incite increased demonstrations, or even rebellion. The motivations for censorship go beyond the preemptive action against civil unrest. The survival of the Iranian regime is also predicated on the prohibition of political groups or parties that stand opposed to the interests of the regime.
The state has a tight grip on who can and cannot seek political power in Iran. Only through the approval of the Iranian state can one seek office in Iran. Those who fail to meet the ideological standards cannot run for office. For all the talk of the conflict between moderates and hardliners depicted in American media, the moderates of Iran still meet a strict criterion for even attempting to acquire power. The information age provides a check on the regime’s monopoly on power that the Iranian state cannot tolerate. Technology and information provides an outlet young people more adverse to the extreme traditionalism of the regime.
Western culture and ideas of liberalism and human rights, ideas the regime vehemently opposes, are accessible to the group of people most willing to oppose the regime, as the recent protests have confirmed. That, along with the online advocacy of ethnic minority groups in Iran such as the Kurds in Arabs, along with extremist and royalist groups, presents an existential threat to the regime of the Islamic Republic.
One of the great ironies of the age of surveillance is that while the government intrusion was predicted, the potential ingenuity of common citizens was mostly ignored. For all the threats of war with the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Israel, the greats threat to the regime in Iran stems from social media and the proliferation of Western ideas and culture. It is a threat the regime fully recognizes.
However, unlike China, Iran lacks the vast amount of resources to regulate information that enters the country. There is a paradox in the irony; the more the Iranian regime attempts to regulate information, the more resistant people will be to the state. The greatest threat to the regime might prove to be the regime itself.