Last week, the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, and his fellow supporters gained a surprise victory when the government began issuing 3G and 4G licenses to the country’s two main mobile operators. This change in the law will provide millions of subscribers with access to high-speed Internet connections. During his presidential campaign in 2013, Rouhani promised to help Iranians gain more access to information, including the usage of the Internet. Although many of his other efforts to modernize the Islamic Republic have failed, it appears that he might have succeeded in allowing the public to have greater access to information via the Internet. After the government’s decision to grant the 3G and 4G licenses, Rouhani stated that Iran could not “close the gates of the world to our younger generation.” He continued by saying that if the younger generation did not receive this access now, it would be achieved sometime in the near future.

In the past, the Iranian censorship system has been very restrictive. Along with blacklisting many sites including YouTube and Twitter, the government ordered Iran’s cellphone operators to provide Internet speeds that would be considered almost “50 times slower than a typical connection in the United States today.” The regime’s orders to permit only severely limited access of the Internet made it virtually impossible for these citizens to view or post videos, make video calls or even upload pictures on to the web.

As a result of the government’s decision, Iranian users will be afforded the opportunity “to watch and send videos, something that was only possible for those with nearly infinite patience and determination.”

Previously, Iran’s censorship policies have flouted UN treaties. In 2012, the UN adopted a resolution asserting that all people, as a right, should have access to the Internet. The resolution also “demand[ed] that countries respect the right to free expression and free access to the Internet and guarantee this right for their citizens.”

As the regime continued to censor and restrict access to the Internet, many Iranians found other means to subvert this censorship. Many younger Iranians have resorted to using illegal software such as Tor, FreeGate, Your Freedom, and Ultrasurf.

However, it remains to be seen whether this change in the law will bring real change to the regime’s censorship system. While faster connections give Iranians greater access to the Internet, the speeds are still slow in comparison to world standards. Additionally, this change in policy has not been universally accepted.

Many of the Conservatives within the Iranian parliament would prefer that Rouhani and his administration put its efforts into developing the National Information Network, a program that began during the previous Ahmadinejad administration. The network’s goal is to “give the government total control over Internet access inside Iran.” Additionally this past month, an Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, noted “3G phones and high speed Internet on mobile devices should not be allowed until the proper tools [were] created to prevent corruption.” Based on the international exposure of his comments Shirazi sought to further clarify his position on August 31, comparing Western technology to “muddy water.” He stated, “water is the source of life but when it becomes unsanitary or muddy, it must be filtered. We say, filter this unsanitary and muddy water named 3G until the water becomes sanitary, and allow everyone to use it.”

While these issues are far from being resolved, they affect multiple actors in Iran, including “multiple institutions across political factions vying for a role, with the competing financial interest of various mobile, 3G and telecoms providers underlaying the fray.”

It’s too early to say whether Rouhani will be able to push to further secure the public’s access to more information, but the world will be watching to see if the conservative members of the Islamic Republican will concede any further to other reforms.

–Mallik Yamusah

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2 Responses to Iran Eases Restrictions on Censorship, Increasing Public Access to High-Speed Internet

  1. Christopher Borns says:

    This is surely a huge step in the right direction for Iran. In recognition of the fact that the Internet enables us to both stay in touch with those people most important to us – our family and friends – and to grow intellectually, I am a full supporter of the United Nation’s belief that all people have a right to Internet access. This easing of government censorship of the Internet in Iran will hopefully help Iranians reap these valuable benefits. Additionally, this should serve to significantly curb the problem mentioned in the blog post of use by Iranians of illegal software to work around the censorship.

  2. Katherine Dutcher says:

    Internet censorship is one of the hallmarks of a repressive government (think Iran, China, Syria), so providing Iranians with increased access to high-speed internet is cause to celebrate. Still, I wonder how positive such a step will actually be. Access to the Internet is only one half of the equation–internet users must also be able to freely contribute to the Internet’s creative commons. This is certainly not the case in Iran, where six young Iranians were recently sentenced to 91 lashes and up to one year in prison for appearing in an online video that showed them dancing (headscarf-less) through the streets of Tehran to the tune of Pharrell’s “Happy.”

    Syria is another interesting case, where internet access was introduced in 2001 only for it to be used as a tool against the Syrian people–in 2007, a Syrian law required internet cafes to record all comments posted to chat sites.

    So while it’s great that there is a push by the Iranian government to increase internet access for the Iranian people, free access doesn’t mean free speech, and handing out prison sentences for uploading videos called “Happy we are from Tehran” is probably not what the UN had in mind with its resolution on internet free speech.