A Dialogue About Communication — Not Political Change — in Iran

A cellphone charging station in Iran. Photo by Ben Piven via Flickr (CC BY-ND-SA 2.0)

A cellphone charging station in Iran. Photo by Ben Piven via Flickr (CC BY-ND-SA 2.0)

Jillian York, Mahsa Alimardani, and Fred Petrossian contributed to this report.

Nearly all Western media coverage of Iran seems to focus on regime change and politics — even when it comes to issues like access to information. Yet it is not the head of state in Iran that is the concern of Internet freedom activists and researchers — rather, we want to talk about how Iranians can easily access information communication technologies that connect Iranians to each other, and to the rest of the world. The Iranian government has built an Internet policy regime reflecting the complexities and contradictions that exist within the institutions of the Islamic Republic — these merit careful attention on the basis not just of political power structures and change, but also in economic, social, and cultural contexts.

Scholars and technical researchers committed to this approach gathered last week at the Iran Cyber Dialogue in Valencia, Spain. Participants included members of government, such as the Persian spokesperson for the United States State Department Alan Eyre; corporate representatives such as Google Idea’s Scott Carpenter; members of civil society, such as Amir Rashidi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran; and technical experts such as Dan Meredith of the Open Technology Fund.

Collin Anderson, an Internet researcher who spoke at the event, framed the discussion with three key concerns: economic development, national security, and regulatory capture. His input into a panel entitled “Technology as a Catalyst” effectively aided the dialogue to move beyond the typical human rights framework. He urged, “You need to be concerned with things that are more myopic, but translate into greater access.” He made an example of the government’s aim to create a local SSL certificate authority. At the moment Iranian companies, as well as certain government entities, rely on foreign certificate authorities for the security of their websites. Anderson argued that this was a legitimate state endeavour, since reliance on foreign certificates creates a national security concern.

Golnaz Esfandiari, a journalist and editor of the popular blog reporting on Iran, Persian Letters, explained the political context of Internet policy and described the polarity on Internet policy that exists between the Rouhani administration, and institutions outside of the President's control, such as the judiciary.

Jillian York, a Global Voices member and international director for free expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, brought on a broader perspective from the Middle East. York pointed out that other countries in the region have similar struggles for online freedom to those happening in Iran. For example, Palestine is restricted from access to 3G by Israel, which can have an effect on economic growth. Furthermore, like Iran, Syria and Sudan are both impacted by sanctions that restrict the import and use of certain technologies in the countries.

Other discussions centred around the contradictions of Internet companies. Panelists pointed to companies that publicly advocate for free flow of information and freedom of expression, yet maintain policies antagonistic towards Iranian users. In the panel “Moving Forward: Building Effective Responses,” the Director of Impact Iran, Mani Mostofi, noted that Twitter does not allow two-step verification for its Iranian users inside of Iran. Twitter has been very vocal about Iranians being able to access and use their platform unfiltered inside Iran.

Ahmed Shaheed the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights condition inside of Iran, told the audience, “my lifeblood is ICT.” The rapporteur is denied access to Iran, and connects to Iranians through platforms such as Skype. Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the EU parliament, explained that learning how to connect to a VPN was the first piece of advice she received upon her arrival in Tehran. Iranians’ use of Facebook as an everyday tool in their lives, and their participation such things as the parody videos of Pharrel Williams’ “Happy” indicates that many Iranians do have a strong a sense of belonging within global media culture.

Schaake remarked:

We should plug in more knowledge about technology as a vital oxygen for Iranian people to connect to the rest of the world, while aware of our role about technologies that can be used for repression.

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