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Surprising as it may be, the internet in Iran started out as comparatively open in the region. However, censorship and internet clampdowns noticeably increased when conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005. The internet had until then given activists, journalists and political dissidents a way to get around Iran’s restrictive media laws and communicate with the outside world.

Since 2005, the internet has been increasingly seen as a threat to “security, cultural, social and moral norms in the country,” as expressed by the Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Reza Taghipour.

This year, Iran has intensified its surveillance and crackdowns even further, causing disconnections and deliberately slowing connection speeds (which were not very fast to begin with). A few weeks ago in February 2012, the government temporarily blocked access to SSL-encrypted sites, making it harder to use censorship circumvention tools. Access to free webmail services such as Gmail and Yahoo! has also been blocked for periods of time since the presidential elections in June 2009, making it difficult for many Iranian users who depend on these services for their daily communication needs.

The latest move to further restrict the internet is the plan to launch a national “clean” internet, which includes, among other things, the requirement for all Iranians to register their websites with the Ministry of Art and Culture, and the establishment of a national search engine and webmail service provided by the government.

The recent increase in censorship and plans for a national internet are particularly worrying for sexual rights activists who are rely on the internet for their advocacy. According to a sexual rights activist in Iran (who wishes to remain anonymous), “After such a long time of working on LGBT rights, we are only seeing some positive impact in this field in recent years. In my own experience as a gay person in Iran, I am only seeing discussions on sexual rights in the past year. We really owe the internet for this.”

Due to the existing government restrictions placed on education and mass media, the internet is one of the few key channels for the public to access information about their rights.

“People are very uninformed about their rights,” says one activist, “if it wasn’t for the internet, people wouldn’t be aware that police don’t have the right to be violent; that politicians can have two jobs; that religions (Bahà‘ís, Jews, Christians, etc.) are free to practice as long as they don’t advertise; and that the hijab is not mandatory by law and that police cannot dictate what people wear.”

Many fear that censoring the internet will also prevent Iran from moving forward and that the notion of freer society will die with the free and open internet.

But the national internet does carry some benefits. Iranian authorities have said that the average user would be allotted 10 mbps of bandwidth, compared to the 128 kbps that most Iranians currently have. It would also give Iranians access to sites like Youtube, even if it is a government-approved, Iranian Youtube. The reality is that the national internet won’t likely pose a problem for citizens who use the internet for routine things like checking their bank accounts, emailing and chatting.

But the picture is much different for sexual rights activists, who will no longer be able to connect to each other or to network with other advocates outside the country:

“It is the end for people like us,” says one activist. “Many organisations who work on sexual rights and provide counselling, hotlines and support are either banned or not recognized by the government. Now external sites from outside of Iran will also be banned, likely as of May 2012.”

Activist communities are now afraid to speak out for fear of being imprisoned, or even sentenced to death). For many, the end of the open internet in Iran comes with a sense of powerlessness: “there isn’t much people can do to react to this. Those who protested the elections are still in jail, and for people like me, who are dependant on the internet, are left with no other choice than to leave Iran.”

Image by the-g-uk. Used with permission under Creative Commons license 3.0.