Since the protests that followed the disputed presidential election of June 12, 2009, the Iranian authorities have waged an active campaign against internet freedom, employing extensive and sophisticated methods of control that go well beyond simple content filtering. These include tampering with internet access, mobile-telephone service, and satellite broadcasting; hacking opposition and other critical websites; monitoring dissenters online and using the information obtained to intimidate and arrest them; ordering blogging service providers inside Iran to remove “offensive” posts or blogs; and trying to fill the information vacuum created by these measures with propaganda and misinformation.
The Iranian regime has long had an ambivalent relationship with the internet, viewing it alternately as a catalyst for economic development and diversification or as an invading force that threatens the state’s strict social, religious, and political values. The internet was first introduced by the government in the 1990s to support technological and scientific progress in an economy that had been deeply affected by eight years of war with Iraq.
However, until 2000, the state played an insignificant role in the growth of internet use among the Iranian public. In this period the private sector was the main driver of internet development, leaving the state with the challenging task of keeping up with a dynamic and overwhelmingly youthful society. The government of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005) then invested heavily in expanding the internet infrastructure, but during his administration, the authorities began to clamp down on free expression in both the traditional media and online.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei first asserted control over the internet through a May 2001 decree and subsequent legislation by the Cultural Revolution High Council that forced all internet service providers (ISPs) to end their direct connections, obtain a license to operate, and purchase their bandwidth from government-controlled Access Service Providers.
The regime’s ferocious attacks on internet use after the 2009 election seemed to mark the end of its internal debate, as the leadership decisively chose political control over the benefits of a more open society. The Khatami administration, following an economic development plan devised during the last term of President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, worked to connect different cities with fiber-optic cables and increase the Iranian internet’s connection points to the global network. The result of this and other such efforts was an explosion in internet use in the country.
According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), there were 625,000 internet users in Iran at the beginning of 2000. By the end of Khatami’s presidency in 2005, the number had increased to several million. This period also featured a major demographic shift in Iran. The population had increased tremendously since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, to a point where more than 70 percent of the population was born after the 1979 revolution. Faced with restrictions on most other forms of expression and social interaction, this young population turned to the internet in large numbers. At the same time, the cost of internet access remains very high and the service is mostly available in the cities, meaning users are predominantly urban middle and upper class. A report prepared by Iran’s parliament blames the government for holding a monopoly on internet bandwidth and selling it to users through a number of intermediaries.
POPULATION: 75.1 million
INTERNET PENETRATION 2009: 24.5 percent
WEB 2.0 APPLICATIONS BLOCKED: Yes
SUBSTANTIAL POLITICAL CENSORSHIP: Yes
BLOGGERS/ONLINE USERS ARRESTED: Yes
PRESS FREEDOM STATUS: Not Free