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Ctrl+Alt+Delete: Iran's Response to the Internet

1. The Challenge Presented by the Internet in Iran

The Internet has had a major impact on the global marketplace of ideas by enabling massive worldwide exchanges of information. Before the advent of the Internet, the three primary methods used for public dissemination of information were print, radio and television. The centralized technical structure and transmittal systems of these platforms lent themselves to relatively easy control of information by authoritarian regimes who could dominate public discourse through control of state-owned radio, television and newspapers. As passive consumers of information, the general public could be managed through careful control of the information that reached the public sphere. This control helped create a more compliant citizenry, thereby limiting the need for more repressive actions and overt human rights abuses.4

The Internet is technically harder to control than traditional mass media. Its decentralized nature and the sheer volume of information it makes accessible both increase the cost and decrease the efficacy of control measures. An authoritarian regime must be willing to both devote greater resources to technical measures of control as well as restrict its residents’ access to the Internet in order to maintain control over expression. For example, the government of Myanmar permits only one Internet service provider (ISP)5 to operate. It is owned by the government, and every person accessing the Internet or creating a website within the country must be authorized by the government.6

Few nations have been willing to sacrifice the economic and social benefits brought by the Internet through such heavy-handed regulation.7 Some regimes have opted for more subtle methods of control. China, for example, uses registration, sophisticated filtration and cooperative ISPs to manage Internet content.8

The Islamic Republic of Iran, traditionally preoccupied with monopolizing public discourse, initially recognized the economic and social benefits of the Internet and encouraged its growth. However, it soon began instituting controls and engaging in censorship. The following subsections provide brief discussions of the proliferation of the Internet, and the history of freedom of expression in Iran, followed by a description of the migration to the Internet in early 21st century Iran.

1.1. Proliferation of Internet Access

Iran was the first Muslim nation in the Middle East to gain access to the Internet.9 Its network emerged in 1993 and grew out of the university system.10 Demand for computers and access to the Internet grew rapidly, and by 2003, Iran had close to 5,000 Internet hosts.11 This growth, the most explosive in the Middle East, resulted in a 2,900% increase in Internet use between 2000 and 2005.12

[4]YOCHAI BENKLER, THE WEALTH OF NETWORKS: HOW SOCIAL PRODUCTION TRANSFORMS MARKETS AND FREEDOM 197, 270 (2006); see also REZA AFSHARI, HUMAN RIGHTS IN IRAN: THE ABUSE OF CULTURAL RELATIVISM 210 (2001).
[5]An ISP is a company that provides individual user accounts for access to the Internet.
[6]BENKLER, supra note 4, at 267.
[7]Id. at 177-80.
[8]See generally Rebecca MacKinnon, Flatter world and thicker walls? Blogs, censorship and civic discourse in China, 134 PUB. CHOICE 31 (2008).
[9]Babak Rahimi, The politics of the Internet in Iran, in MEDIA, CULTURE AND SOCIETY IN IRAN: LIVING WITH GLOBALIZATION AND THE ISLAMIC STATE 37, 37-38 (Mehdi Semati ed., 2008). After Israel, Iran was the second nation in the Middle East to provide access to the Internet.
[10]See BENKLER, supra note 4, at 269.
[11]See Rahimi, supra note 9, at 40; OPENNET INITIATIVE, INTERNET FILTERING IN IRAN IN 2004-2005 4 (2005), available at http://opennet.net/sites/opennet.net/files/ONI_Country_Study_Iran.pdf (last visited Apr. 15, 2009). An Internet host is a computer or an application that serves clients or customers. One example could be a mail server that provides customers with email.
[12]OPENNET INITIATIVE, IRAN 1-2 (2007), available at http://opennet.net/research/profiles/iran (last visited Apr. 15, 2009). In 2001, only about 1 million Iranians were online compared to approximately 25 million in 2007. See Markaz-i Amar-i Iran: Miyangin-i Sinniyih Jam’iyat-i Iran dar Dah Sal-i Guzashtih az Hudud-i 24 Sal bih Marz-i 28 Sal Risidih Ast [Iranian Census Bureau: In the Last 10 Years the Average Age in Iran Has Increased from 24 Years to 28 Years], BBC PERSIAN, available (in Persian) at http://www.ettelaat.net/07-september/news.asp?id=23991 (last visited Apr. 15, 2009); see also MARKAZ-I AMAR-I IRAN, NATAYIJ-I SARSHUMARIYIH UMUMIYIH NUFUS VA MASKAN: JADAVIL-I MUNTAKHAB [IRAN CENSUS BUREAU, CENSUS RESULTS RELATING TO THE POPULATION AND HOUSEHOLDS] 1385 [2006], available (in Persian) at http://www.sci.org.ir/portal/faces/public/census85/census85.natayej (last visited Apr. 15, 2009)..

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Free Speech, Right to Protest, Cyber Journalism, Torture, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, Punishment, Due Process, Right to an Attorney, Free Association, Political Freedom, Equality Before the Law, Discrimination