The Political Evolution of the Iranian Internet

ASL19 researchers Shahram Rafizadeh and Mahsa Alimardani with the Iran Media Program

Iranians increasingly rely on the Internet for information and as a forum for dialogue within a political structure where free and open debate is often stifled. IMP and ASL 19 analyze the history of the Internet in Iran and the emerging politics of its use as a surrogate public sphere.

Internet in Iran: the early years

Iran was one of the early adopters of the Internet in the Middle East, with Sharif and Guilan Universities offering the first connections to the global network in the early 1990’s. Iran officially joined the World Wide Web in 1993 and a year later, the Neda Rayaneh Institute was launched in partnership with the municipality of Tehran to provide Internet services for Tehran residents.

Iran had only about 200,000 Internet users in the late 1990’s, so it played little to no role in facilitating the formation of reformist factions that saw the victory of Mohammad Khatami during the 1997 and 2001 presidential elections. Iran’s conservative judiciary began a crackdown on pro-reform press in reaction to the reformist surge following the Khatami presidency.

According to Blogistan researchers by A.Sreberny and A. Khiabany, the number of Iranian Internet users had grown to between 1.7 and 2 million users, and in response to the reformist press crackdowns, publications increasingly began hosting content online as a way to bypass newspaper bans. Emrooz website was in the vanguard of online publications, launching a website in 2002 and cultivating influence among a wide readership. In one of Emrooz’s first pieces, reformist strategist Saeed Hajjarian suggested that a totalitarian society should have the right to choose “not knowing,” since "knowing" often implies knowing only what the authorities wish for the citizenry to know. While reformists were initially the early adopters of the Internet as a political platform, ultimately all of Iran’s political factions have formed an online presence. Iran’s conservatives, more united during the Khatami era than they are presently, (see the existing divide between the Ahmadinejad camp and traditional conservatives here), launched several online publications including Javan, Daricheh and Baztab through governmental organizations such as Sepah, the police, and the judiciary.

According to Farsi language software developer Behdad Esfahbod, the release of Windows 2000 and Internet Explorer 5 enabled the current version of the easy-to-use Persian Unicode Standard keyboard and made online publication easier, enabling Iranians to create online content in their own language, eventually leading to one of the most vibrant ‘webs’ in the world. According to A. Sreberny and G. Khiabany, between 2001 and 2009, an estimated 400,000 and 700,000 Iranian blogs and websites were created, leading some scholars to refer to Iran as “Blogistan.”

While the IRIB remains state-controlled and newspapers are either run with interference from the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance or shut down for infractions, online publications could quickly and cheaply adapt to state censorship and crackdowns by re-launching online. According to urban sociologist Masserat Amir-Ebrahimi, the Internet has created a space for Iranians “more ‘real’ than everyday life.” Debates and discussions about sociopolitical circumstances in Iran taking place online were subject to fewer or no controls in the early years of the Internet in Iran. Many Iranian journalists who were unable to publish freely in print, especially due to mass closure of newspapers, started writing online. Even with Iran’s current sophisticated Internet censorship and surveillance apparatus, Iranians still have a platform through which to access information and distribute content from within Iran, although anonymously and with the help of circumvention tools.

Statistics on the Increasing Popularity of the Internet

Even as internet penetration rates in Iran increase (Internet World Stats notes Iran’s internet penetration is at 53%), traditional media still play an important role in news and information consumption patterns in Iran. The Research Center of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) conducted an (unpublished) poll in 2005 to examine usage patterns among residents of Tehran, with TV leading by a landslide.

These IRIB findings have been corroborated both by a 2012 IMP survey which found that among the general population, 96% of the sample listed TV as their first choice for news and information, and a media use survey conducted by the BBG found that for 86% of Iranians, TV is their dominant source of news and information.

    

However, other surveys suggest other patterns. Another survey in 2012 conducted by the IMP with tech-savvy Iranians, 89% of those under 30 years old turn to the Internet first for news and information. A poll conducted in Tehran by the Islamic Labor Party in 2013 (unpublished) showed that state TV and radio have lost a considerable amount of its audience, while Internet use is on the rise: it was the main news source for 13% of the sample, with 8% accessing filtered websites. This poll also showed that participants had high trust in blocked websites accessed through circumvention tools.

Alef reported that, “trust in IRIB has decreased in comparison to online websites and satellite channels,” and suggested that this shift was brought on through the availability of uncensored news, especially with regard to providing information on international reactions to events within Iran. Research conducted by a subdivision of the IRIB after the 2009 elections found the IRIB damaged its reputation and lost public trust by broadcasting biased reports about post-election events. According to a 2006 report on newspaper usage in Tehran,(unpublished), restricting the free flow of information was the catalyst for the shift from newspapers towards digital media: only 26% of participants viewed the flow of information through newspapers as “free” or “quite free,” while 69% did not think newspapers had the capacity to freely inform the public.

Anecdotally, recent crackdowns on opposition newspapers and arrests of journalists have led to a further erosion of trust in official media sources among. The regime’s tight control over information has meant that Iranians are even more reliant on the Internet, and the illegal circumvention tools required to access it, especially as the June 14, 2013 presidential elections approach.

Presidential candidates go online

The presidential election of 2005 was the first election during which the Internet played a noticeable role. Presidential candidates benefitted from sending group emails, designing banner ads on popular websites, initiating lengthy debates on weblogs, launching websites to distribute election-related news, and taking advantage of chat rooms. The creation of candidate websites emerged as a popular trend during this election with presidential candidates Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mostafa Moein, Mehdi Karroubi, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ali Larijani, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and Mohsen Mehr-Alizadeh launching their own websites during the 2005 election. This enabled Iranians to directly interact over the Internet with candidates and their platforms, cutting out the middleman role often played by state controlled broadcasting and newspapers.

Several websites were also launched in support of presidential candidates, designed to favorably report campaign news and platform positions. These websites included the conservative Khat-e Nohom which supported Ali Larijani, Nasim, associated with Mostafa Moein and Faghat Moein, Farzand-e Mellat (affiliated with Mohsen Rezaei), Abadgaran supporting Ahmadinejad, and the fundamentalist Osoolgara, supporting Ali Larijani. These websites were taken down following the 2005 elections and now exist as archives online.

Prior to the 2005 election, conservatives had absolute control over the judiciary, security organizations, army and police forces. Sepah tightly restricted the Internet and arrested around 21 bloggers and blog and website managers under an organized plan known as “bloggers suppression case.” In the weeks before the election, authorities blocked thousands of websites and blogs in order to reduce the impact of online communications during the election.

Mostafa Moein was the first presidential candidate to start blogging, gaining the support of many bloggers in 2005. The more conservative Ghalibaf, however, had a less amicable relationship with the blogosphere. Around the 2005 elections, bloggers actively circulated a letter harshly criticizing his role as chief police during major crackdowns on bloggers.

The Internet and the 2009 presidential elections

The 2009 election was a watershed moment in illustrating the sociopolitical impact of new media. Khordad, a website publicly advocating the overthrow of the regime, supported Abdollah Nouri’s candidacy during the 2009 election. Jomhoriyat was another popular website critical of Ahmadinejad and his supporters and actively covered election-related news.

Mir Hossein Mousavi and his campaign used various new media platforms to advertise gatherings and events, and multiple websites sprung up in support of him, such as Mowj-e Sevvom, which attracted 460,000 supporters. Kaleme, Ghalam, and Mowj-e Sevvom reported on arrests and post-election protest suppression. Mousavi’s supporters also launched an Internet TV network called Mowj-e Sevvom as part of his campaign. Also, Tagheer (change) and Campaign 88 were websites dedicated to supporting Karroubi during and after the 2009 election.

Mousavi and Karroubi were the only candidates to make ICT sector and infrastructure development part of their presidential platforms. Mousavi’s proposed plan to establish an “electronic government” included providing free access to high speed Internet for home and business customers, adopting different approaches toward filtering, protecting online privacy of Internet users, respecting users’ rights to freedom of expression, and enabling public access to unrestricted portions of information from governmental agencies. Abbas Abdi reported on Karroubi’s plans to free the Internet and to break the dominance of IRIB during the 2009 election.

A few hours before voting was scheduled to end on Election Day, Sepah officials raided Mousavi campaign headquarters and shut down Mowj-e Sevvom Internet TV. Other pro-Mousavi and Karroubi websites had their activities restricted, or in many cases, banned. Website administrators and managers, along with many bloggers and journalists, were arrested, imprisoned, or had to flee Iran. Foreign-based Persian websites, such as Radio Zamaneh and Voice of America, also became the target of cyber attacks by the government of Iran.

Many blogs hosted on Iranian servers were filtered or removed completely. According to the director of BlogFa Ali Reza Shirazi, authorities issued filtering orders for over 100 blogs on a daily basis. The judiciary even accused Google, Facebook, and Twitter of various indiscretions during the post-election unrest.

The Internet and 2013 presidential elections

The Internet in Iran was initially developed as a platform for research and education. However, when conservative authorities closed several reformist newspapers during the Khatami presidency, many journalists sought refuge online. They were able to express views that would be censored in print media, which had become the target of aggressive government controls. This early adaptation as a surrogate space for views that could not be expressed in the press or on TV politicized the Iranian web in its earlier years and made it a source for information not necessarily found offline.

The 2013 presidential election is likely to differ significantly from 2009. The severe crackdowns in the wake of the 2009 protests had a chilling effect on the online vibrancy of Iran’s reformist movement .The majority of reformist websites in Iran are now either filtered, shut down, or are now hosted outside the country. The recent closure of VPN ports and crackdowns on their sales could further limit the vibrancy of online presidential campaign activities and debate, as could the progress of Iran’s national intranet. As the June elections approach, the significance of the Internet is once again being brought into relief: Access to popular social networks, micro blogging, and video sharing websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are blocked and only accessible with the help of circumvention tools. Official online campaign activities are relegated to platforms not filtered by the authorities, such as the online version of newspapers that are not shut down, and blogs that are not banned in Iran. While the 2009 precedent of aggressive policies to close down the Internet lingers, the likelihood of similar behavior being repeated in 2013 depends, to a large extent, on the candidates that are approved during the Guardian Council vetting process from May 7-11, which will determine voters’ enthusiasm to participate in the election. The government has already begun to hedge against political unrest and the use of social media to ignite crowds again, and repressive Internet policies are likely to intensify as the elections approach, under the pretext of national security.

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