Improving Online Access to Information in Iran

Closing the Gap Between Potential and Practice

by Sophie Lowe

The gap between potential and practice was one of the main themes that emerged in the messages of speakers at the Iran Cyber Dialogue held over March 5-6 in Valencia, Spain as part of the Circumvention Technology Festival. The Iran Cyber Dialogue (ICD) gathered over 150 Iranian and global actors to discuss the intersecting roles of technology and diplomacy in improving online access to information in Iran.

Traditionally a private, invite-only event with Chatham House rules meetings, this year’s ICD took a decidedly different approach: In addition to the private sessions, the first day consisted of three public panels with 19 speakers representing influential stakeholders from private technology companies, government, the UN, media and civil society leaders. Speakers took questions via social media, the panels were live-streamed and are now available on YouTube. To reach a larger Iranian audience, ICD will also produce written content that delivers an abridged version of the panels in Farsi.

Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in the Islamic Republic in Iran, was the first to raise the issue of this gap between potential and practice in terms of positive advancements in human rights.

“Iranians are highly educated, very well connected, and if you look at their own legal frameworks… Iran has had over 100 years of legal reform, it has the gravity pull and force for positive reform.”

Leading Internet infrastructure specialist, Jim Cowie of Dyn, also spoke of Iran’s potential, but from the Internet measurement and technology perspective. “Iran is under massive sanctions; it can’t import networking equipment, it can’t really talk to the outside world very effectively,” and yet, he observed, “there’s a lot of connectivity in the rural countryside and a lot of connectivity to the outside world… Iran is set to have a substantial Internet economy.”

While the infrastructure is a positive development, Jim noted that Iran’s gateways remain controlled by a handful of people, which “should cause people to ask why is it being so slow?”. He left participants with a final question, “Why are we being throttled down and have to pay the gatekeeper to get in and out?”

What the divide means for technology start-ups and the private sector

During the private day of sessions, participants discussing opportunities brought on by the growth of Iranian technology start-ups, noted that there is no shortage of potential in terms of technological expertise and market growth. With over 65 percent of the population under 35, a proliferation of smartphones, and one of the highest mobile and Internet penetration rates in the Middle East and Central Asia, Iran is poised for major market growth.

But, while events such as Startup Weekend, iBridges and Tehran Slush help build networks, mentorship and draw attention to entrepreneurial talent, these events have yet to address the reality of persistent challenges facing citizens and businesses. More specifically, the ongoing challenges of sanctions restrictions and the complexities of overcompliance, together with ongoing censorship and information controls, all remain serious barriers to international investment and accessing the necessary technology services to run businesses online.

Raising another set of challenges, Mani Mostofi, Director of Impact Iran, reminded participants of the distance between North American and European firms, and the analysis involved in projecting what the impact of their technologies might be in other geographical regions. For instance, Mostofi urged participants to remember that there are entire sets of laws and policies regulating the uses of technologies made in “the west”, and that those developing them need to consider its impact in other geographical regions, including Iran. He asked both the business sector and technology developers to “...ask what will the IRI [Islamic Republic of Iran] do? If the Iranian government will use this to keep you in jail, you better think about it.”

The persistence of Iranian Internet users

Perhaps the widest distance elucidated by the panelists is the one between the Iranian government’s efforts to restrict and control the flow of information online and the continued persistence of Iranian citizens to gain access. Golnaz Esfandiari, Senior Correspondent of Radio Free Europe and editor of the award-winning Persian Letters blog, spoke of the myriad of ways Iranians are using social media and mobile chat apps to comment, discuss and broach topics often seen as taboo or illegal. Citing the example of the current Foreign Minister, Mohammad Jawad Zarif’s Facebook page, Esfandiari told the audience, “when he was still posting and updating his status, citizens would challenge him”.

Highlighting the ubiquity of social media and online chat forums, Maryam Abolfazli, COO of Lantern, made the point that sharing and posting comments are no longer exclusively an expression of activism, but that of citizenship. “When I care about something, I share it; if I don’t, I don’t. It’s not a full time job, that’s just part of being a citizen. And there are lots of citizens in Iran.”

Bridging potential and practice

Moving beyond examining the impact of technologies with only one framework or the interests of one sector, participants and panelists encouraged stakeholders to examine the impacts more comprehensively. Perhaps the message closest to answering the question of how to bridge the potentials and realities of technology, whether to support human rights or to spur economic development, were comments from Collin Anderson, an independent researcher who spoke on the ICD’s third panel. Anderson called for the necessity of a more “holistic view” to understand “the decision-making process and the opportunities for increasing access inside of Iran.”