Late last month as nationwide street protests entered their fourth day, Iran’s interior minister, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, issued a statementdarkly warning that online social networks in the country were being used to create “violence and fear.” A day earlier, the internet as a whole had briefly flickered offline throughout Iran in what was widely interpreted as a government-engineered throttling. Following Fazli’s statement, the government blocked access to the photo-sharing site Instagram, as well as Telegram, a secure messaging app used by 40 million Iranians per month that had begun to emerge as a key organizing tool for protesters.
The shutdown of Telegram and the brief closure of the internet as a whole are signs of the Islamic Republic’s increasing technical capacity to manage its citizens’ access to the global web. A new report by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, “Guards at the Gate: The Expanding State Control Over the Internet in Iran,” paints a grim picture of the Islamic Republic’s growing ability to control and stymie the flow of information online.
As in much of the developing world, internet use in Iran has grown exponentially over the past decade. According to figures from the United Nations, at least 53 percent of Iran’s population of 80 million people used the internet as of last year, including 40 million mobile phone users. This increasing public access to the web is partly the fruit of government investments in telecommunications infrastructure. But Iranians’ growing ability to share information and organize online also pose obvious threats to the authoritarian ruling government.
The Islamic Republic has responded to these threats in various ways. As the report documents, the government’s effort to tame the internet has been centered on the creation of a government-controlled system known as the National Information Network. This system, the first phases of which launched in 2014, gives Iranian internet users preferential access to domestic websites and search engines.
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