The promise of the internet is the free flow of information and ideas – at the touch of one’s fingertips. The appeal of that promise is obvious among Farsi speakers. In 2004, a survey found that Farsi was the fourth most popular language of bloggers on the internet. And internet usage in Iran has been steadily increasing. The press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders calculates that in 2004 there were just over one million internet users inside Iran; today it says, that number has climbed to eighteen million.
But the government of Iran views access to the free flow of information and ideas by the Iranian people as a challenge to its legitimacy and power. At a workshop on media censorship sponsored by the U.S. government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors, Iranian-born journalist Babak Yektafar explained the regime’s mindset:
“They do see this as a direct threat to their existence, to their stability.”
As a result, the Iranian government goes to great lengths to control internet usage, and its attempts at control are increasing. All internet service providers must be approved by the Ministry of Culture and Guidance, and the government uses filters to block thousands of websites.
In 2006, authorities banned high-speed connections, making it difficult to download western cultural products, including songs and films. In 2007 the Iranian government arrested more than ten bloggers, mostly women demanding an end to severe gender discrimination in Iran. This month, four women who contributed to feminist websites were given six-month prison sentences for threatening national security.
Paula Dobriansky, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs and co-chairperson of the Global Internet Freedom Task Force, views the internet as a potent tool for democratization and individual freedom. It is the task of free people, she says, to support those journalists and citizens who struggle under the restrictions placed on internet usage by oppressive regimes like Iran. She is optimistic about the outcome:
“With the partnership of fellow democracies, industries and non governmental organizations, efforts to regulate and restrict free speech will ultimately prove an unsuccessful attempt to hold back the rising tide of democratic change.”
President George Bush is also hopeful. “Young people who have grown up with the freedom to trade goods,” he says, “will ultimately demand the freedom to exchange ideas, especially on an unrestricted internet.”