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Monday, December 04, 2006

Banning the internet

Today's Guardian reports that Iran has joined China in restricting access to the internet for its citizens. Despite having a blogging President the Iranian Government yesterday shut down access to sites such as Amazon.com, Wikipedia, IMDB.com, YouTube and the New York Times.

The clampdown was ordered by senior judiciary officials in the latest phase of a campaign that has seen high-speed broadband facilities banned in an attempt to impede "corrupting" foreign films and music. It is in line with a campaign by Iran's Islamist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to purge the country of western cultural influences.

Iran was among 13 countries branded "enemies of the internet" last month by the human rights group, Reporters Without Borders, which cited state-sanctioned blocking of websites and the widespread intimidation and jailing of bloggers.

Critics accuse Iran of using filtering technology to censor more sites than any country apart from China. Until now, targets have been mainly linked to opposition groups or those deemed "immoral" under Iran's Islamic legal code. Some news sites, such as the BBC's Farsi service, are also blocked.

The paper continues:

The ban on YouTube reflects a growing official sensitivity to private films on the internet, an issue highlighted by a recent online video which appears to show an Iranian soap opera star having sex.

With some 7.5 million surfers, Iran is believed to have the highest rate of web use in the Middle East after Israel. The net's popularity has prompted an estimated 100,000 bloggers, many opposed to the Islamic regime. Some blogs are substitutes for Iran's once-flourishing, but now largely supressed, reformist press.

Last week Mohammed Tourang, head of the information bureau's cultural committee, warned Iranian websites of stricter rules by announcing steps to stamp out "immoral and illegal" content. He said site owners would be given official reminders to eliminate forbidden material. Special attention would be paid to content judged to be a threat to national unity or insulting to sacred religious texts and symbols. Students and academics say the move limits their ability to conduct research.

The purge mirrors a rising tide of censorship in Iranian publishing which has resulted in the banning of hundreds of books, including western classics. Illegal satellite dishes have also been seized.

Many regimes have sought to suppress freedom of thought and expression in the past but the internet offers a particular challenge to such tyrants. The quality of some of the banned sites may be questionable but the principle at stake here is fundamental. These restrictions are contrary to the democracy that Iran professes to practice, they will undermine academic progress and hold the Country back economically.
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