The Iranian Struggle for Internet Freedom
In 2008, in the midst of writing about a new law concerning Iranian women requiring a male guardian’s permission to leave the country, I stopped for a moment, closed my eyes and listened to my surroundings. The fast, mechanical sounds of typing took me back to the newsrooms in Iran before I left in 2006. A voice startled me from my reverie and returned me to my small living room that I shared with my husband and another journalist friend, who had recently come to the US. During that time, that tiny living room served as our “nerve-center,” our intimate newsroom; a backdrop that held sway over a process that involved waking-up, turning on laptops, surfing news, and writing articles until sundown.
The Internet and websites we wrote for not only helped us survive financially but also emotionally. Given our meager English at the time, we wouldn’t have had much of a shot elsewhere. Without these types of safe-houses, we would have been exiled or rendered useless.
The Green Movement uprising began in June 2009, and over 50 journalists fled Iran soon after, fearing a new wave of arrests. Many other Iranian citizens also left Iran in pursuit of a better life, and safety and security. The introduction of social media helped Iran become an all-inclusive “cyber-country,” giving Iranians throughout the world to opportunity to partake in our history.
Facebook became a go-to place for expatriate Iranians to wish each other “Happy New Year” every March 21st and pay homage to our traditions. Friends that were strewn far apart were finally able to keep in touch by posting pictures online and commenting on them. New websites like Iran dar Jahan or Mianeh started to proliferate, and provided a forum for journalists in exile to stay in touch with one another, without feeling forgotten or useless.
I believe this is the primary reason the Iranian government fears the impact of the Internet. Their plan to drive people out of the country, divide them across different continents, and run the country as they wish was stymied by the powers of online connections. The internet united Iranian people scattered throughout the world--and brought them together--under one roof to laugh, cry, be sentimental, and most importantly, be informed.
But the Iranian government is doing everything in its power to stop the movement. The “National Internet” also known as theHalal Internet, first came to light in the winter of 2007 when a proposal was submitted to Parliament with a requested budget of over eight million dollars, or 100 billion rials. Halal is the Iranian government’s effort to have a “clean” internet, in accordance with Sharia law, and without Western influence. Radical and reformist groups protested this government-run internet service, as it dismantles their personal freedoms. However, a year later, the proposal was accepted with a budget of 3.50 trillion rials. Halal is expected to expand its speed to 2mbps, which would be the fastest connection in the Middle East, after the UAE. According to Net Index, Iran currently has the slowest Internet in the region at 155 mbps. A popular Internet option for non-savvy Internet users in Iran is cable VPN at a speed of 212 kbps.
Iran’s government has blocked many popular websites including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Iranian netizens use third party websites to break through these proxies, which makes the speed even slower. VPNs and similar technologies have now solved many of these problems but the speed is still strikingly slow (512 kbps versus the high speed connection in America which is 15 mbps).
The government has picked up on the use of proxies though, and some users avoid these circumvention tools because they are cumbersome. Paria (an anonymous name for an Internet user in Iran) says: “When I use software that I’ve downloaded from the Halal Internet it actually comes built-in with an anti-proxy. I use the Internet to check my emails, Facebook, and to do research for my college papers and I really can’t spend any more time waiting on the Internet for unnecessary stuff. When I login to Facebook, it takes around 10 seconds. But when I’m in, it takes much longer because pictures and videos are heavier to download.”
Meanwhile, the Iranian government is also using heavy-handed physical repression to stop the progress of a free Internet. Mohammad Soleimani Nia, a social media expert and Internet pioneer in Iran, was arrested on January 10, 2012 for managing a Persian version of LinkedIn. Nia has gone on a hunger strike twice to protest the government’s coercion.
Despite all these difficulties and dangers, a majority of Iranians, almost 47% of its entire population (78,868,711) are active internet users, according to the Internet World Stat in 2012. Though the Iranian government is trying hard to stop freedom of thought online, the Iranian people have proven their incredible fortitude to seek new information and connect with one another.