Iran reduces Internet barriers

President OKs more technology

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TEHRAN, Iran — Some days ago, Mahdi Taghizadeh did some­thing he never thought he would — at least, not in Iran. He took a screen shot and shared the im­age with his fol­low­ers on Twit­ter.

“They were all ex­cited,” Mr. Taghizadeh, an In­ter­net en­tre­pre­neur, said. “Finally.”

Mr. Taghizadeh’s small tri­umph on the side­walk of a Te­hran street was among the first tan­gi­ble re­sults of a rare vic­tory for Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Has­san Rou­hani over the hard-lin­ers who ef­fec­tively rule this coun­try. Last week, the gov­ern­ment un­ex­pect­edly granted 3G and 4G li­censes to the Islamic re­pub­lic’s two prin­ci­pal mo­bile op­er­a­tors, which are rush­ing to roll out high-speed con­nec­tions to their tens of mil­lions of sub­scrib­ers.

While Ira­ni­ans will­ing to flout the law have long used il­le­gal soft­ware to gain ac­cess to banned In­ter­net sites such as YouTube and Twit­ter, Iran’s main cell phone op­er­a­tors had been or­dered un­til now to re­duce In­ter­net speeds to a sub-snail’s pace, ef­fec­tively mak­ing it im­pos­sible to use the sites, make video calls or send im­ages.

Mr. Rou­hani has long called for re­lax­ing Iran’s tight grip on the In­ter­net, but has had only lim­ited suc­cess in the face of stern op­po­si­tion from a con­ser­va­tive co­a­li­tion of cler­ics, mil­i­tary com­mand­ers and law­mak­ers, who have ar­gued that any re­lax­ation of stric­tures will spread im­mo­ral­ity and un­wanted ideas.

There is also a po­lit­i­cal di­men­sion to the con­ser­va­tives’ re­sis­tance. Since anti-gov­ern­ment pro­tests rocked the streets of Te­hran in 2009, the Ira­nian au­thor­i­ties have di­rected tire­less ef­forts to en­sure that ac­tiv­ists can­not use the In­ter­net to or­ga­nize pro­tests or dis­trib­ute im­ages and vid­eos of demon­stra­tions.

But in a speech to cler­ics Mon­day, Mr. Rou­hani warned that the days of blunt meth­ods of con­trol were fast end­ing and urged them to be more tol­er­ant of new tech­nol­o­gies. “We can­not shut the gates of the world to our young gen­er­a­tion,” he said, ac­cord­ing to the state Islamic Re­pub­lic News Agency. “Once, there was a time that some­one would hide his ra­dio at home, if he had one, to use it just for lis­ten­ing to the news. We have passed that era.”

Over the past few months, the gov­ern­ment has al­lowed ser­vice pro­vid­ers to in­crease band­width for home con­nec­tions, of­fer­ing data traf­fic of as much as 10 mega­bits per sec­ond — still slow com­pared with the West, where us­ers typ­i­cally choose plans of­fer­ing 20 to 30 mega­bits per sec­ond. Ne­ver­the­less, while Iran’s In­ter­net ac­cess is still slow com­pared with that in many coun­tries, it does now al­low us­ers to watch and send vid­eos.

The pres­i­dent’s mes­sage is trust, his sup­port­ers say. Ira­ni­ans are wise enough to make their own de­ci­sions, says Far­shad Ghor­ban­pour, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst close to Mr. Rou­hani’s gov­ern­ment.

“Our ed­u­cated peo­ple use the In­ter­net in a healthy way,” he said, “and have the right to fast In­ter­net, like all other peo­ple in the world.”

Through­out his first year in of­fice, Mr. Rou­hani has fought the hard-lin­ers on mul­ti­ple fronts, usu­ally back­ing down. His ad­ver­sar­ies, who con­trol most of Iran’s le­vers of power, such as the ju­di­ciary and sev­eral im­por­tant coun­cils, want the pres­i­dent to fix the econ­omy and cut a nu­clear deal with the West on Iran’s terms, but have blocked all so­cial changes.

Since the ear­li­est years of their faith, Shi­ite cler­ics have ded­i­cated them­selves to pre­vent­ing be­liev­ers from com­mit­ting vice and to pro­mot­ing vir­tue. Over the years, they have banned the VCR, de­clared sat­el­lite TV il­le­gal and blacked out mil­lions of web­sites — in­clud­ing Face­book and Twit­ter — in a not ter­ri­bly suc­cess­ful ef­fort to pro­tect their flock from mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­o­gies.

But the in­for­ma­tion age has left them di­vided. While most cler­ics agree that the In­ter­net is good for sci­ence, they also say there must be over­sight and con­trol for al­most ev­ery­thing else.

A lead­ing aya­tol­lah, Naser Makarem Shirazi, called upon the gov­ern­ment to re­voke the mo­bile In­ter­net li­censes, be­fore young minds can be poi­soned by “dirty pic­tures and clips,” a post on his web­site read.

To some ex­tent, the gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to al­low high-speed In­ter­net sys­tems is a rec­og­ni­tion of re­al­ity. Be­fore now, mil­lions of tech-savvy Ira­ni­ans lived a forced life of crime, buy­ing il­le­gal soft­ware that en­abled them to visit blocked sites. Ne­ver­the­less, even those who by­passed the state fil­ters were sty­mied by the ex­cru­ci­at­ingly slow In­ter­net speeds.

In his speech Mon­day, Mr. Rou­hani did not ad­dress the is­sue of the fil­ter­ing and block­ing of web­sites, which will re­main in place, an­a­lysts said. At a news con­fer­ence Satur­day, he said he re­mained com­mit­ted to a na­tion­wide in­tra­net, like those main­tained by com­pa­nies, with only se­lected web­sites al­lowed.

Iran is no­to­ri­ously in­con­sis­tent in its so­cial pol­i­cies, and there is no guar­an­tee the new In­ter­net speeds are here to stay. But there was one en­cour­ag­ing sign: Aya­tol­lah Shirazi is­sued a state­ment Sun­day say­ing his de­mand to re­voke the li­censes had been dis­torted. “We are not against tech­nol­ogy,” he said. “But we feel the new tech­nol­ogy must be pu­ri­fied be­fore it is given to the peo­ple.”

iran - Middle East - Iran government - Tehran - Hassan Rouhani - Google Inc


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