Iran Escalates Campaign Against Online Expression
The Iranian regime is doing everything they can to scare their citizens into silence. Ranked among the worst in the world in terms of online censorship, Iran has taken harsher, increasingly sophisticated steps to stifle free expression online and condemn the act of information sharing in light of increasing political and economic tensions. While a recent initiative to create a national “halal” Internet would essentially block Iranians from the outside world, last week the country’s Ministry of Information Communication Technology (MICT) also issued regulations that force Internet cafés to install security cameras, document users’ browsing history and usage data, as well as collect personal information for each session of use. Worse still, bloggers continue to be arrested, detained, and now, even sentenced to death.
This week, Reporters Without Borders reported that two bloggers sentenced to death in January 2011 over charges of promoting anti-state, anti-Islamic sentiments have just had their sentences confirmed. Both men have been detained since 2008 and have reported torture.
Vahid Asghari, a 24-year-old student in India, was arrested on May 11, 2008 at Tehran Airport and accused of hosting websites with “pornographic” content critical of the government. Amnesty International reports that Asghari wrote to a judge that “he had been subjected to torture, forced to make a televised ‘confession’ and forced to make spying allegations against high profile blogger Hossein Derakhshan.”
Saeed Malekpour, a 36-year old web and circumvention tool developer based in Canada, was arrested over several charges, including “acting against national security through propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” “insulting and desecrating the principles of Islam,” and “production and publication of obscene materials through computer systems.” United for Iran reports that he had created a photo-uploading program, and that it had been used to upload pornographic images without his knowledge. He was sentenced to death last week as a “corrupter of the earth.” While the government officially acknowledges executing 17 people since the start of the new year, Amnesty International reports receiving information that the true number may be closer to 39 executions.
Other bloggers are also under threat. In December 2011, 50-year-old Iranian blogger, Mohammad Reza Pour Shajari (AKA Siamak Mehr) was charged for “waging war against God” by openly criticizing the state on his blog, Iran Land’s Report. And Rojin Mohammadi, a medical student in the Philippines, was arrested in November and is being held without charges at Iran’s notorious Evin Prison
New restrictions on Internet use
In another front in their war against free expression, the MICT last week issued 20 new regulations on cybercafés. This crackdown is notable because these cafés have become a cultural center for youth in many towns and neighborhoods, attracting activists and others who believe that their own computers could be compromised. The data collection program is intended to curb political activities and ensure that they have records of anyone who attempts to circumvent content blocks or bans. Collected information includes the date and time of usage, and IP address and URLs of the websites they visited. Cybercafés will also be required to write down “forename, surname, name of the father, national identification number, postcode, and telephone number of each customer.” This information must be retained by cafés for at least six months. On January 1st, 43 Internet cafés in the Birjand region have already been raided by the Iranian Internet Police for failing to follow these new regulations.
The Iranian government’s plans to create a “national Internet” that would cut off a majority of their citizens from the global web and “replace” it with their own appear to have entered an implementation phase. Whereas current censures target content related to political opposition, social movements, and any other content they deem to be offensive, this new parallel domestic network would effectively block any foreign site regardless of its content and only allow internal communication within the country. If the Iranian government succeeds in creating this so-called ‘halal’ Internet, Iran would essentially cease to have access to the global Internet at all and be, limited to an intranet only carrying state-controlled content. Recent reports of slow Internet connections in the country indicate that this so-called “halal Internet” is truly underway. The Wall Street Journal reports domestic media sources as stating that it is already set to go live within the next couple weeks.
Iranian sources report that in the two and a half years since protests overtook the streets of Iran, opposition groups have increasingly taken to the Internet to express their dissatisfaction with the government. By restricting citizens’ access to the Internet and threatening bloggers with death, the Iranian regime seeks to paralyze its citizens into silence.
Despite what the regime may believe about the effectiveness of fear mongering, these atrocious acts of state repression will only further antagonize the youth opposition movement, including the thousands of Iranians with the technical capacity to circumvent these measures. Meanwhile, the arrests, executions, and attempts at censorship will continue to help organizations seeking to mobilize international attention. While Iran will surely continue to violate human rights, cutting the Iranian people off from the Internet will also do immeasurable damage to the Iranian economy and its ability to maintain any global competitive edge in technological or creative innovation. The question is: at what cost will they continue to put their country in the dark?
EFF stands with Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, United For Iran, and other organizations in condemning these grave state actions, and supports the thousands of Iranian bloggers and activists who bravely fight for free expression.
For more information on Saeed Malekpour’s case: