None of us can imagine life without the internet. Neither can we imagine a government that would shut down or sensor the internet. We are the lucky ones.
Not so Iranians. Average Iranians crave the internet – especially young Iranians. But their government, together with the governments of China and North Korea, sensor and block and even totally shutter the internet when it suits their needs. Especially when they wish to quell protests or to make certain that their people live in both literal and in figurative darkness.
Religious leadership in Iran has clamped down on the internet. They filter everything, especially social media. They even block game sites. And last year, in November of 2019, they shut down the internet for a week.
It was a total internet blackout brought about because Iranians had staged a protest across the country. Locals took to the streets. They stopped traffic and caused long backups. The protests stretched across hundreds of cities around the country.
The stimulus for the protests was a staggering increase – a 200% increase –in the price of gasoline. The demand was a change in religious leadership. Their language of communication was the internet. So when communication was cut off, the protest disappeared.
As much as 95% of the internet is often blocked by the government.
Not surprisingly the Grand Ayatollah, the president and the foreign minister of Iran all have active Twitter accounts in both Persian and in English. What is illegal for everyone else in Iran is perfectly suitable for them.
Iranian leadership claims that the content that can be found via the internet is in violation of their religious principles. They are up-in-arms about pornography. But while porn certainly occupies a large wedge of internet content, it is not the only internet offering.
The real reason Iranian leadership fears the internet is the easy access it offers to information and freedom. Oppressive regimes – all oppressive regimes, detest freedom of information and content. The internet is king of content, that's what makes it so enticing for users. It is news and analysis. It is history and politics and it is communication.
The internet is everything Iran and China and North Korea detest. They detest the internet because they fear the internet. Because the World Wide Web is bigger than they are.
The way most young Iranians get around their regime's blocking of access to social media and other sites is through Virtual Personal Networks or VPN. A VPN ghosts your location. So, you may be sitting on the computer in Teheran but VPN shows that you are in Los Angeles, or London, or Lisbon.
The biggest obstacle users in Iran face with a VPN is that they need to get on their Iranian local server in order to click on to a VPN. And if the local server goes down, so do they. Back at square one, they wait in line to get back on. It's worth the wait. Iranian internet users rely on VPNs, because when an Iranian uses a VPN, government filters do not work.
United States tech companies are trying to help local Iranians access their beloved and much needed internet. Several VPN providers have begun giving 10GB of free VPN, which is about 800 hours of web surfing, to every Iranian. They are also persuading other VPN providers to offer the same free service to Iranians. VPN providers have worked toward finding ways to alleviate the pressure felt by Iranians and to work around the restrictions imposed on them by their government.
They have created a way to get onto the internet without using an Iranian host which they are gifting to Iranian internet users. This move is a deal-changer. Access to an unfiltered internet might possibly bring about the fall of the religious regime in Iran.
But remember, this is Iran they are end around-ing. Everything comes with great risk. Authoritative, extremist, quick to mete out punishment Iranian leadership is keenly aware of the internet and of VPNs. So they continue, relentlessly, to disrupt service in order to stop communication. The frustration felt by Iranian users is a bonus enjoyed by Iran's leaders.
The regime brutally punishes those behind protests and those who skirt the sensor to organize protests. That's fact, not assumption. This week Amnesty International released a report stating that following the November 2019 protests, many of those thought to be involved in the protest had been arrested and tortured and sexually abused.
Iranian security services were sent out to crush the protests. Those who were supposed to defend the right of the citizens against abuse were, of course, silent. They are part of the oppressive system. And the report makes note of that. The Amnesty report was disturbing but not surprising. Iran is a human rights abuser on par with China and North Korea.
There will be change in Iran, but it will take time and lives will be lost. It might sound hokey, but freedom always wins over oppressive governments. They cannot last. And there is no doubt in my mind that, ultimately and even ironically, the internet will play a significant role in the overthrow of an oppressive regime in Iran.
We need to remember what kind of country Iran is and what Iran stands for. And we need to remember the people that the government of Iran oppresses.
Micah Halpern is a political and foreign affairs commentator. He founded "The Micah Report" and hosts "Thinking Out Loud with Micah Halpern" a weekly TV program and "My Chopp" a daily radio spot. A dynamic speaker, he specializes in analyzing world events and evaluating their relevance and impact. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern. Read Micah Halpern's Reports — More Here.
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