Iran's New President Hints At Easing Internet Controls

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Iran's President-elect Hasan Rowhani has already called for less filtering of the Internet, saying Iran must maintain its principles, but also needs to engage with the wider world.

"We should rectify our relations with the world," Rowhani said in remarks carried by Iran's Press TV. "Gone are the days when a wall could be built around the country.... Today there are no more walls."

There are certainly walls in Iran's cyberspace today – thousands of sites are blocked as dangerous or offensive, and technology to circumvent government filters is banned. An aggressive cyber-police corps actively hunts for those trying to get around state controls.

Conservatives Push Back

Iran's conservatives are also active in the debate, fearful of encroaching Western and secular values via the Internet. Even as Rowhani called for less filtering, Iran's communications minister announced that every Iranian would be assigned a national email address. Analysts say those will almost certainly be avoided by reformers and anyone else who doesn't want the authorities to read his or her emails.

Analysts see the debate over the Internet as one useful indicator of Iran's future direction. Official figures show that more than half of Iranians use the Internet, despite government obstacles.

Collin Anderson, an independent researcher on issues of censorship and surveillance in authoritarian countries, recently collaborated with Small Media on a report on Iran's web-filtering practices.

He says conservatives defending the government's Internet policies were handed a great gift with the recent revelations of large-scale data gathering and surveillance programs in the United States like PRISM.

He says it was easy for commentators to gloss over the differences between the Iranian and U.S. programs and claim that Iran really isn't doing anything unusual.

"And so you actually saw a lot of discussion of PRISM. And this was a way of legitimizing the actions of the [Iranian] state by saying, 'Hey look, everyone does this, including you know, supposedly the herald of the ideals of freedom of expression and privacy,'" says Anderson.

More Freedom, But When?

Over time, Anderson and other analysts believe the pull toward greater Internet freedom will be irresistible. But in the current political climate, Rowhani is likely to move slowly.

Anderson says he may not, for instance, push for an immediate lifting of the bans on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Rowhani could, Anderson says, focus on a more pragmatic problem that has plagued Iran since 2006, a cap on broadband speeds at a very old-fashioned 128 kb per second.

"(That's) not even close to the international standard, it's not even close to what any country regionally or on the same socio-economic scale has as far as broadband," he says.

"That was initially applied to restrict information and make filtering easier, but it's fundamentally denied access to all sorts of economic development or media opportunities," Anderson explains. "I think that cap will probably be one of the first things to go."

It's The Economy

If broadband speeds increase and other controls are relaxed, it won't be just reformers and Web surfers cheering.

Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, says if Rowhani wants to follow through on campaign promises to improve Iran's staggering economy, he may want to enlist the business sector in a push for a faster and more useful Internet.

"There is this very powerful argument that if Iran wants to rebuild its economy it's going to have to make full use of its resources, it has to make full use of its human talent, and part of this is also being in communication with the outside world and not to be fearful of it," he says. "So I think this is something that is undoubtedly coming."

As with other areas of reform, Internet freedom advocates are hoping for positive steps from Rowhani. But given his reputation as a moderate, they're may not be big steps, at least not right away.

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