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Iran's Efforts To Deny People Information And Entertainment Are Futile

An Iranian man shows his phone while unable to load a social media page as internet service was cut by the government during protests. November 17, 2019.
An Iranian man shows his phone while unable to load a social media page as internet service was cut by the government during protests. November 17, 2019.

Iranian society has been fighting systematic censorship for over four decades; from the ban on videotapes in 1980s, jamming satellite television, blocking news websites in 2000s and social media in recent years.

Nonetheless, a glance at the past shows that the Iranian government's extensive restrictions have had very little if any impact on the way Iranians have been using videos and satellite television. None of the government's restrictive measures at any time have effectively prevented Iranians from trying to communicate with one another or with the outside world.

Filtering websites and messaging services simply make access to the free world difficult, but not impossible. Anyone looking for the information on a website, watching a movie, or trying to send a message will inevitably find a way.

If the objective of filtering is cutting off individuals from the outside world, it is obviously not going to work.

Even before the emergence of the Internet, there were creative ways to make the jamming of radio signals ineffective. In practice, all the money various governments, including the Islamic government of Iran, spent to isolate the population have failed in one way or another.

In the gloomy atmosphere of Iran during the 1980s, particularly when the current reformists were in charge, possession of foreign movies and VHS videotapes was a major crime. There are many reports about restrictive measures including lashing people at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

Reformist President Mohammad Khatami in December 1982 called for handing over the control on production and distribution of video tapes from the "anti-vice courts" to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance where he was the minister in charge. He said: "We have a plan to prevent the cancerous growth of this phenomenon [video tapes] before it slips into the lap of vulgarity and leads to catastrophes."

More than four decades have passed since then, but neither lashes, nor arrests, jamming and filtering did not bring the Islamic government any closer to its restrictive cultural objectives. The government's measures have created problems for the people, but did not succeed in preventing their access to the free world.

This policy of isolating the country continued with the filtering imposed on YouTube, Facebook, and particularly Telegram. Now several lawmakers have tabled a motion to ban all social media outlets. They have also called for punitive measures such as fines and imprisonment against those who provide "filter breakers" (VPN or Virtual Private Networks) that allow individual users to circumvent the filtering.

Extensive ban and filtering of social media platforms and attempting to come up with a national information network or national Internet, which are attempts to isolate the country, may or may not be possible from a technological perspective. However, these might lead to a gradual deterioration of the free flow of information in Iran. But this will be a transitory situation as technology against filtering is progressing on a daily basis.

When the Iranian government confiscated videotapes, the government could close down all communication outlets. But the emergence of satellite television put an end to the government's restrictive power in this area. Every now and then a new communication technology is introduced that counters the government's restrictive measures.

A few decades after the emergence of the Internet, people around the world can find out about culture, economy, politics, and entertainment in other places. Although the Islamic government's cultural policies have led to the country's abnormal isolation. But still, Iran is different from North Korea and its younger generation has learned about the lifestyle of people in the free world beyond their country's clerical barriers.

There is no Netflix, no Visa or Mastercard in Iran ruled by the clerics, but still Iranian youngsters know how to access the latest software, movies and music. Massive filtering has not served the interests of the government.

On the other hand, the cultural policymakers of the Islamic Republic have ignored the fact that filtering technologies have a expiration date no matter how progressive they are. It is certainly bad news for them that Starlink has put some 400 satellites in orbit to launch a project that provides Internet connection from the space. Starlink is a satellite constellation being constructed by SpaceX to provide satellite Internet access. Eventually, there will be 12,000 satellites providing a good upload and download speed all over the world, and whatever filtering and other restrictive measures by the despotic government have done so far will be undone.

In the same way that lashing and imprisonment did not stop videotapes in the 1980s, the space technology developed during recent decades, projects such as SpaceX and Starlink will put an end to filtering. Subsequently, billions of dollars spent by the government in four decades to block information and conduct what it calls "smart filtering" and "clean internet" will be wasted.

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    Erfan Kasraie

    A science journalist and a member of the German Society for Philosophy of Science (GWP), Erfan Kasraie occasionally contributes to Radio Farda.