I’m not inventing this: Iran really does have a body called the the Supreme Council for Cyberspace. This body with the science-fiction name is wrestling with the dilemma facing dictatorships everywhere.
Even by official estimates, more than half of Iran’s 75m people are net users. At that level, the internet is basic to the functioning of the economy, and that includes trade and contacts outside the country. So the cyberspace councillors can’t just shut down the internet even if they had the technical means to do it.
So they do two things: they slow it down and they try to build infrastructure which they can watch. There’s a tense election coming in June and the authorities have had several years to plan against a repeat of the demonstrations which took them by surprise in 2009. As AFP reports, the authorities in Tehran are suspected of putting the internet in a “coma”. Revealingly, the people who seem to have spotted this first are the DVD pirates who can’t any longer download foreign movies because the system is so slow.
The way that the cyberspace rulers may be managing this is by blocking Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Iranians who don’t want to be traced accessing sites outside their borders use VPNs to connect to international sites and to disguise where they are. The use of VPNs is illegal on the grounds that they are insecure and may carry material considered depraved, criminal or politically offensive. So the Iranian authorities are building their own VPN for people to use, which internet experts quite reasonably assume will be transparent to the supreme cyber-councillors, not to mention to the security police.
Don’t run away with the idea that the men with their hands on the switches of the Iranian internet are mindless thugs: they have been learning elegance. If you try a blocked site, you get a pretty picture of an ant carrying a leaf up a rope. The caption announces the year “of political and economic epoch”, celebrates the birthday of the prophet’s daughter Fatima and wishes you happy Mothers’ Day and Womens’ Day. (If anyone can send me a link to the picture, I’ll post it but I can’t find a copy of the image which was reproduced in the Jordan Times yesterday – not sure if that’s because of the internet blockade or my ineptitude in search).
I wonder if the authorities think that internet-savvy users are women? Fair to assume that the cyberspace police are men.