Strangling the Net: Iranian Censors Plan to Restrict Broadband Access

By: Rob on 23 October 2006

Little more than a month ago, the technical head of the Iranian company charged with filtering Internet content in Iran declared that Iran was blocking more than 10 million websites. Not to be outdone, Iranian government officials have countered by announcing the intention to limit the speed of Internet connections in the country to 128kbs. This move is as breathtaking as it is wrongheaded.

Many countries around the world are quietly limiting access to content on the Internet. Given the scale and sophistication of the blocking that occurs there, China has relatively little to say on the matter. Vietnam and Uzbekistan, among others, are conspicuously quiet about the motivation and reach of their Internet filtering programs. Iran stands out by the enthusiasm and audacity it manifests in touting its successes in limiting the access of its citizens to cyberspace.

This announcement also reflects a more recent stage in the constantly evolving battle for control over the Internet. Ideas expressed in simple text on the Internet?the modern equivalent of the pamphlet posted on a tree?do not require a lot of bandwidth. Traditional filtering mechanisms will be relied upon to deny Iranian citizens access to many blogs and Internet articles. Capping the speed of the Internet, however, is most likely a response to the burgeoning new media on the Internet such as Flickr, Google Earth, Skype, YouTube and the host of similar websites. The move to effectively block access to high bandwidth applications and websites suggests a well-informed appreciation of the changing modes of communication on the Internet; viral videos, geographic mashups and podcasts are increasingly used to convey a tremendous diversity of ideas, from the mundane and irreverent to the momentous and profound, and everything in between.

The common element that these media share is that they are an easy and fun way to take in ideas, making this an obvious target for filtering. Limiting bandwidth is an exceedingly blunt tool for squashing dissent. Broadband Internet is more than a pathway for cultural change; it is also an important conduit for 21st century human expression and economic growth. Iran is unfortunately not alone in denying its citizens access to the outside world and the benefits of connectivity. Many countries around the world have substandard communication infrastructure and policies designed to limit participation in the Internet. The Iranian government, however, is unique in declaring this policy with such alacrity. A backlash from within Iran is inevitable, though it is hard to predict the future of this policy in Iran. It is easier to predict the future of Iran if this becomes the law of the land.