In Iran, internet freedom is severely restricted by the authoritarian regime. However, many Iranians rely on the internet to express their dissent and demand their rights. This article argues that the U.N. should stop giving Iran a seat at the table of internet governance and instead support private sector initiatives that can bypass censorship and surveillance.
On September 16, 2022, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, was arrested by members of the Iranian Morality Police as she exited a Tehran Metro station. Her alleged crime: allowing a few strands of her thick black hair to slip through her hijab. After three days in a detention center, Ms. Amini was transferred to a hospital and subsequently pronounced dead. While the exact circumstances of her death remain unclear, many believe she was murdered by Iranian authorities.
In a country where extrajudicial killings are the norm and government abuse of citizens is widespread, Amini’s death touched a nerve. Since then, the Iranian government has been brutal in its crackdown against protestors. Given that independent media is severely limited in Iran, exact death tolls are not available. Nevertheless, the human cost has been significant, with Amnesty International reporting that at least 82 protesters and bystanders were killed on September 30 alone in clashes with state police. Some commentators have downplayed the role of the internet in anti-authoritarian protest movements, stating that the role of social media has been overstated. Such analysis ignores the various uses of the internet, as well as changes in Iranian society. The story of internet access in Iran is not a story of the network’s failures. Rather, it is the story of arbitrary regulations hampering the progress of the private sector—and it should serve as a stark warning to Americans.
In the summer of 2009, mass protests broke out across Iran in response to allegations that the presidential elections were rigged in favor of the hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Millions mobilized in what became known as the Green Movement. While the protests were eventually suppressed by the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the internet played an important role in amassing support for the movement. Images of the shooting of 26-year-old protestor Neda Agha-Soltan circulated heavily on Twitter, inspiring others to join the protests. Protestors’ mutilated bodies served not to dissuade participants but instead compelled others to join, fueling a cycle of protest that Agha-Soltan’s killing had started. At the time, fewer than one million Iranians had access to smartphones. Thus, while the internet was important to the protest movements, its full potentially was hardly tapped. Yet the government sensed the power of the internet and instated a number of measures to disrupt internet freedom, including imposing severe content restrictions, hacking dissident websites, and abducting the operators of said websites.
Today, the role of the internet cannot be ignored. As of 2020, the share of Iranians who used the internet was estimated to be 84 percent—a dramatic increase from 2009, when internet penetration there stood at 14 percent. As the protests have evolved, the Iranian government has transitioned from a policy of intermittent internet stoppages to a complete shutdown. A common tactic of the regime is to leverage the ethnic and regional diversity of Iran. For example, in the 2011 anti-government protests, rural youths were brought to urban centers to savage protestors. The internet has served to disrupt that pattern and enable connections between the Baloch minority, the Kurdish minority, and ethnic Persians. Despite the significant economic and social impacts of the internet shutdown, the regime’s actions should come as no surprise to observers of Iran. Faced with the alternatives of ceding power or attempting to improve the lives of Iranians, Ali Khamenei and his sycophants have instead chosen to do neither.
On September 23, 2022, the U.S government eased sanctions on Iran’s import of communication technologies, which theoretically would aid Iranian internet access. The effect has been minimal because these devices cannot operate without support infrastructure, such as the cellular towers that dot the United States.
As is often the case, the private sector has stepped into the void. In September, Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors, offered to send his Starlink system to Iran. Starlink allows users to connect to the global internet through the use of a transmission system between low-flying satellites and a receiver. Because Starlink satellites orbit at a lower altitude than other communications satellites, the infrastructure required to receive their transmissions (and by extension to connect to the global internet) is much less extensive. Unlike conventional receivers, these receivers are highly mobile, weighing only around 15 pounds. Although the receivers must be placed in an open space to receive transmissions, this would present a relatively small challenge in a country as vast as Iran (compared with, say, North Korea). Although thousands of receivers would need to be smuggled into Iran for Starlink to be operational, the cost would be relatively minor, and Musk has signaled that he is open to financing the operation.
Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to bringing internet freedom to Iran is not the practical but rather the arbitrary. If Starlink were to be imported to Iran, Musk could face punishment from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a regulatory body of the United Nations. The ITU has strong backing from the Chinese Communist Party and other repressive states. According to ITU policy, if a private company provides internet to a country independent of regulations established by that country, the company exposes itself to punitive action from the ITU. Thus, the fact that the U.S. government has eased its own sanctions on Iranian telecommunications equipment has no effect on ITU regulations.
This is a stinging indictment of the United Nations. Going forward, the United States should reconsider whether the United Nations serves to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights,” as is stated in its charter, or is simply another bureaucracy that works to separate people from their inalienable rights. I know what my answer is.