Iran has long stymied political dissent by shuttering newspapers and intimidating journalists, so effectively applying the same methods of control to the Internet and Iranian blogs should be a piece of cake, right? Right?
Criminalising the Net
For 30 years the Iranian state has tried to frame all public matters and policy according to what they regard as ‘Islamic’. In the case of internet, as it was for films and the press, users are set the task of promoting state-defined policies and to refrain from producing what are perceived to be anti-Islamic values. Yet, because of factionalism within the Iranian state, the expediency of the system as a whole and the continuous challenges from social movements, activists and journalists, such policies and measures have come under attack and been revised, ignored or shelved all together. In most cases the authorities have accepted that there are ambiguities and problems, as is evident in the debate about internet speed, and have promised to set up yet another committee or body to address or resolve them. Yet changes have come as a result of pressure from below, the impossibility of reinforcing such regulations – as in the case of satellite dishes, which are formally illegal but widely used – or the degree of security that the authorities have felt after trying to contain a specific crisis or threat to the system as a whole.
The increased activities of various ministries including the judiciary and the new wave of policy initiatives and attacks in 2006 and 2008 came in the context of mounting internal and external pressures. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government faced rising inflation, which meant a further decline of living standards, triggering a wave of strikes by workers and teachers, students and women disillusioned with the new president who had come to power on the back of promises of more equal distribution of resources. From the outside, there was growing pressure from the Bush government’s rhetoric of ‘exporting democracy’ and concern about Iran’s supposed nuclear weapons programmes, so that the spectre of war lurked.
In 2001, when the government first introduced its internet policy, access to the internet was limited and the amount of Persian language content was not great. The increased availability of internet, the rise of the Persian blogosphere and the migration of large numbers of journalist to the net after the closure of many reformists newspaper (see Chapter Seven) made the net a much more serious issue for the state, which elaborated new internet policies in 2006. Three key regulations were introduced in 2006. One dealt specifically with blogs and required that all bloggers register their blogs, a rule introduced in August 2006 and brought into force in January 2007. The other two regulations both introduced in November 2006 aimed to make the control of the internet more manageable and systematic by specifying previous regulation as well as specifying the punishment for cyber crime (Cyber Crime Bill).
These regulations, as Open Initiatives reported, were a response to a directive of the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council (SCRC) to manage internet activity ‘while considering individual rights and safeguarding Islamic, national and cultural values’. The main bodies behind these regulations and in charge of enforcing them were the usual suspects: the Ministries of Islamic Culture and Guidance (MICG), Justice and Information. In terms of licensing, all websites and blogs that did not have a required licence or obtain one from the MICG would be considered illegal.
The Cyber Crimes Bill highlighted what many ISPs in Iran had feared since 2001, that they were to be held criminally liable for the content they carried. Under this law, ISPs that did not follow existing regulations and failed to filter specified websites and pages could be suspended, lose their licence or face hefty penalties and prison sentences. Article 18 of the bill required ISPs to ensure that ‘forbidden’ content is not displayed on their servers, that they immediately inform law enforcement agencies of any violations, that they retain the content as evidence and that they restrict access to the prohibited content. The bill also included provisions for the protection and disclosure of confidential data and information as well as the publishing of obscene content.
This law effectively reproduced the existing Press Law which had been revised in 2000 to take account of the growing criticism of many semi-independent newspapers and their online versions and required all ‘publishers’ to obtain a licence. As was the case in the press law, insulting Islam and religious leaders and institutions, as well as fomenting national discord and disunity and promoting prostitution and immoral behaviours, all figured in the new internet regulations and ISPs and users could be punished for not abiding by these rules. Some of the articles in the Cyber Crime Law are similar to various attempts across the world to prevent invasion of privacy and control child pornography. Articles 16 and 18, for example, set the punishment of three months to three years prison sentence and fines of 2–15 million rials (US$200–1,500) for these crimes: producing/storing/distributing sexual images of minors under 18; encouraging and forcing minors to participate in sexual acts, suicide or taking drugs and, in the case of Article 18, publishing visual and audio materials of private affairs of individuals without their permission. The latter seen as a response to the circulation in 2006 of privately-made camcorder footage of Zahra Ebrahimi, an actress, having sex with her then-boyfriend that was posted on the internet and widely downloaded.
Blogistan Debates Control of Blogistan
Iranians were very quick to establish online monitoring of government predations on the Web and to note problems. In 2004, websites were noting the problems of ‘access denied’ and suggesting ways around this. The image became quite familiar to Iranians trying to access new sites, blogs or external pages.
As we have mentioned, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance announced that, based on a ruling introduced in the summer of 2006 (29 Mordad 1385), the owners of blogs and sites had to register their web site or blog within two months from 1 January 2007. At the time of registering, private information such as name, family name, identity card and telephone numbers would be recorded as well. This ruling indicated, among other things, the state’s perception and recognition of the significance of blogging. Of course, it elicited a big response from bloggers.
In a BBC interview Omid Memarian argued that the new law would only encourage more bloggers to go underground. He pointed out that the law was only effective in targeting those who already are known and write under their own name and therefore abide by the law. He argued that the purpose of the new law was to stifle intellectual debate in Iran and to crush the blogosphere: ‘This legislation would mean that every blogger who is an intellectual, a journalist, a social activist, or who writes under his own name would have to blog in line with government taste’. Another Iranian blogger/journalist Parastoo Dokoohaki (zan neveshet) connected control of the internet with broader political control of the media:
getting rid of all sorts of private media is one of the objectives of this government. Look at the newspapers. Every day you see fewer and fewer exclusive news stories. Do you know why? It’s because government officials don’t welcome reporters. At the moment, websites are the only outlet for those who care about freedom of information and for those who work in news. Ministers want to limit and control websites, because they want to get rid of the media. They have not given the issue any real thought, because destroying the media is tantamount to destroying the government. Is this practical? It would be too optimistic to say it’s not possible to restrict websites. Just look at China. There, no stone is left unturned in the quest for media control’.
Kamangir, another blogger, suggested ‘the registrant is even asked for his/her mobile phone number, probably in case big news starts spreading and they need to call you to let you know that you really don’t want to talk about it’. In a post dated on the day that the process was to begin, Kamangir argues with typical Iranian sarcasm:
When we talk about rules, in Iran, sometimes we do not really mean rules. Take the new mandatory law which literally forces all bloggers and website owners to register. The new law gives a two month period, after which the unregistered sites will be said to have an ‘unknown identity’. What the consequences of having such a site will be, no one knows yet. The registration process begins with an email address, about which the rule has specific guidelines. According to the howto-register, deliberately given only in Persian, sites which have a domain name (say www.kamangir.com) need to create an email address starting with ‘[email protected]’ (say [email protected]). They will be contacted using that email address. But send an email to [email protected] to see it doesn’t exist. What does that mean? It means Ahmadinejad has not registered his blog yet.’
Celebrated Iranian blogger, Khurshid Khanum, Lady Sun, responding to why she had not reacted to this law, employed a well-known proverb in Iran in her argument that ‘Javab-e ablahan khamushi ast‘; ‘the best answer to stupid people (those responsible for this law) is silence’, further pointing out that ‘if they want to continue to filter us as they have already done and will do, why should we bother to go register our blog?’ Leila Mouri, in her blog Raha (Free), questioned the blogistan’s silence. She worried about the vagueness and general wording of the new law, saying that ‘it is precisely this vagueness which is always used to silence the press and now the target is websites and blogs’ and suggested that the blogistan had to decide how to deal with this issue. One response to the new law was the creation of the Committee of Blogging Rights Advocates (COBRA), which explained itself saying:
Our main and only goal is to defend the natural right of open and free thinking and sharing opinions. This committee is not related to any political group, party or wing, neither Iranian nor foreign ones. We are just trying to defend the most obvious and natural right of humans, freedom of opinions.
Influenced by previous collective actions of bloggers the group designed a special logo ‘for the unity of the bloggers against any kind of illegal limitation’ and asked all bloggers to put it on their blogs on January 30.
Another effort came from Nima Akbarpour in his weblog Osyan (Revolt) who designed another logo that read ‘I will not register my site!’ and again asked bloggers to put it on their blogs. One blogger called the new law the ‘military government in Blogistan’ (hokomat-e nezami dar weblog-abad). Another labelled it as estebdad, oppression. While yet another blogger in an entry entitled ‘Censor Cuts the Sharp Knife of Our Critique’ suggested that the new law and censorship in general would not lead to the destruction of struggle for democracy, but rather it would change the legal struggle into a clandestine one.
Annabelle Sreberny is Professor of Global Media and Communications and Director of the Centre for Media and Film Studies at SOAS, University of London. Gholam Khiabany is Reader in International Communications in the Department of Applied Social Sciences, London Metropolitan University.