Iran’s Internal Internet One More Step Towards Fragmented Access to Information

The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Global Communications Studies will release a report this week showing that Iran is at the implementation stage of a decade-long plan to launch an internal internet for the country that would be wholly detached from the global internet that we all know, allowing significantly tighter government control over the flow of information into and within Iran. The Washington Post reports that the Iranian government has laid significant technical foundations, and that a number of government and academic sites are already up and running, with email providers in place and more than ten thousand devices connected. This development strikes a significant blow to the concept, lauded by Secretary Clinton in her 2010 Remarks on Internet Freedom, that we must maintain “one internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all,” or we risk “a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors.” The state of internet solely within Iran may strike many as inconsequential, particularly given that Iran is being increasingly economically and politically isolated in the wake of their nuclear developments. The reality, though, is that this is an unprecedented step away from the internet as it has existed since its invention, and it is only the most recent in an alarming trend where oppressive regimes take increasingly drastic steps to control the content to which their citizens have access. A retrospective of internet policies around the globe in just the last several years bears this out: In January 2011, then-President Mubarak largely succeeded in shutting down the nation’s internet access in an attempt to quell the pro-democracy uprisings that led to his ouster. Prior to that political misstep, the world was not even aware that such a shut-down was possible, but we now have to wonder which governments have built-in such a switch that may be flipped at any point, cutting off vital information and organization channels that foster democratic movements worldwide. Just this week, the Middle East region exploded with violence over a trailer for the film “The Innocence of Muslims,” posted on YouTube in mid-summer but only recently translated into Arabic and disseminated by regional actors. The reactions of Middle Eastern and Western governments were largely disorganized and, in many cases, impermissibly dismissive of freedom of expression and free flow of information rights. YouTube’s parent-company, Google, found that the video did not violate its terms of service and thus should not be removed, but after White House and other external pressure they blocked access to the video in Egypt and Libya. Most disturbingly, the government of Pakistan has now blocked YouTube entirely, based on the country’s harsh blasphemy laws, which are very often used as a legal veil for broad censorship and the abuse of minority groups. What we are seeing in this film furor is the broadest-yet use of the “heckler’s veto,” which Robert Post, Dean of Yale Law School, defines as a situation where “a hostile audience threatens sufficient disturbance, [and so] the law will sometimes seek to protect public order by shutting down a speaker.” Mr. Post further describes the long-term implications of permitting the heckler’s veto to triumph, even once: “A heckler’s veto creates very bad incentives for those who oppose freedom of speech. If we wish to maintain open public discussion, therefore, we will not easily let law be determined by an angry mob.” The “hecklers” win not just a short-term battle, but a long-term victory when a company fails to challenge a takedown request to the greatest legal extent, and where governments feel free to block entire inroads of information without regard for internationally-recognized human rights norms. Perhaps the most advanced restrictions on internet access—until now, that is—have developed in China in recent years, with their highly sophisticated and ever-strengthening Great Firewall. Because of the size of the Chinese market and their position in the global economy, multi-national corporations have largely complied with the content and access restrictions imposed by the government, and there has even been significant investment by both internal and external companies to develop products that not only comply with the Great Firewall, but advance its capabilities. It should come as no surprise that, as reported by the Washington Post, “At the core of the [Iranian] network was high-end equipment manufactured by the Chinese firm Huawei that is capable of sophisticated online surveillance of traffic.” Taking a holistic view, Iran’s internal internet is the next logical step in technology and policy development for repressive regimes around the world. Iran’s communications and information technology minister, Reza Taghipour, has in fact venerated Iran as a “pioneer” of this development, highlighting the fear of nations committed to an open, singular internet that this is just an intermediate step in a perpetual march against the liberating potential of the global internet. Dan Baer, deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said of this development “We have concerns from not only a human rights perspective, but about the integrity of the Internet…When countries section off parts of the Web, not only do their citizens suffer, everyone does.” Secretary Clinton has aptly described what is at stake when the foundation of inclusiveness on the internet is attacked:

“Information freedom supports the peace and security that provides a foundation for global progress. Historically, asymmetrical access to information is one of the leading causes of interstate conflict. When we face serious disputes or dangerous incidents, it’s critical that people on both sides of the problem have access to the same set of facts and opinions…lopsided access to information increases both the likelihood of conflict and the probability that small disagreements could escalate. So I hope that responsible governments with an interest in global stability will work with us to address such imbalances.”

Companies also have a huge role to play in this battle, with not only the moral high ground at stake, but also the profit and loss bottom line. Political and social stability contribute to a solid economic climate; foundational trust between companies and users, which is developed through honest dealings and a commitment to protecting content and the users themselves, instills customer loyalty; and the ability to access new users through the global internet, without being blackballed from some internal system, is the most basic of economic necessities. Companies that commit to performing human rights impact assessments, engaging with local and international stakeholders, and developing comprehensive internal policies to address difficult issues in a way that puts the human rights of users first, will be the stewards of both global commerce and principles.  Secretary Clinton implored American companies to “make a principled stand,” asserting that “this needs to be part of our national brand.” The issue of an Iranian internal internet is not a singular issue. It is a piece—albeit a large one—of an ever expanding puzzle of censorship policies, blasphemy laws, internet off-switches, take down orders, firewall technology, and now, a “second” internet that aims to keep the logistical benefits of technology and strip away all of its potential for increasing knowledge, understanding, exchange and tolerance throughout the world. Many in developed and developing countries now live huge portions of their lives online, creating a cohesive world that is bigger than any one person or country could ever imagine alone. Creating a “second” internet—and opening the door to a third and tenth and fiftieth—fragments our world in a way that is directly opposed to the endless potential of the “one internet” that we have known so far. Unless we all—netizens, activists, governments, and companies—firmly and forcefully challenge these developments as they come, and establish strong boundaries soon, we will reach a point where the alarming trends explained here become the norm.


Published on September 20, 2012


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