This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. A Future Tense conference on the promise and limitations of using technology to spread democracy will be held at the New America Foundation on July 13. (For more information and to sign up for the event, please visit the NAF website.)
The Obama administration has begun taking action to bring Internet freedom to Iran. This sounds wonderful.
But this approach ignores two key factors: 1) Iran already has the upper hand in this battle; 2) the current approach is dangerous to activists and focuses on too few people. If the U.S. really wants to bring free-flowing information to Iran, it needs to rethink its current strategy.
I grew up in Iran and worked as a journalist there until 2004, when I—along with 20 other bloggers, Web technicians, and journalists—was arrested by security forces for my blog, in what was the first major raid against bloggers and online activists. After two months of mistreatment and solitary confinement, I was released and soon after moved to the United States.
In January 2010, I joined a number of Internet activist and journalists from around the world for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's major address on Internet freedom. In the speech, she announced what amounts to a soft cyber-war with authoritarian regimes including Iran. "We are … supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship," said Clinton, adding, "We are providing funds to groups around the world to make sure that those tools get to the people who need them in local languages, and with the training they need to access the Internet safely."
According to some estimates, the State Department will spend something around $70 million on "circumvention efforts and related technology."
In June, the New York Times reported that "the Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy 'shadow' Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks." One of the secretive programs that the administration is working on is a $2 million project dubbed the "Internet in a suitcase." The idea is to send these devices to activists in authoritarian countries like Iran; recipients will be able to use wireless communication and connect to the global environment, without fear of monitoring. (The Open Technology Institute of the New America Foundation, which is part of the Future Tense partnership with Slate, is a recipient of the grant and taking part in the "Internet in a suitcase plan.) Iranian authorities promptly announced that they have plans to fight back these secretive plans. In fact, they've already been doing it for years. The United States has a lot of catching up to do if it hopes to use the Internet to bring freedom to Iranians.
Over the past five years, Iran has employed one of the most sophisticated filtering systems in the world. It controls Internet service providers, hunts activists via the Internet police, uses thousands of operators to monitor Web content, and can slow down or shut down the Internet when needed.
Since the contentious 2009 presidential election sparked so much international conversation about the role of social networking in democracy movements, Iran has intensified its efforts to finish the "National Internet Network," which costs the government about $1.5 billion. The network is supposed to disconnect Iranians from the World Wide Web and enable the government to have a much higher control over the Internet. A year after the election-related unrest, Iran's police commander told reporters, "Social networking on [the] Internet has imposed a heavy cost to the country." Iran's investment in curbing access shows that the government sees the threat of the power of the Internet.