Whereas ancient philosophers pondered if a falling tree makes a sound if no one is around to hear it, technological advances in the past decade have raised a similar question: If something occurs and it is not posted on Facebook, Twitter, or somewhere else in cyberspace, did it actually happen?
The Internet and social media platforms are defining features of contemporary life. Whereas grandparents remember penning handwritten letters and parents remember clacking away at keys on a typewriter, today’s younger generations would be lost without devices providing instantaneous connections to the world: smartphones, laptops and tablets. Many societies benefit from citizens’ ability to actively participate in politics and other social endeavors through the Internet, but others argue too much information and unregulated Internet mediums harmful. Viewing certain Internet sites subversive to its government and impeding social order, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s government has and continues to enforce Internet restrictions.
Weeks before the June 2009 Iranian presidential election, the Iranian government blocked access to Facebook. The government crackdown on Facebook reportedly resulted from presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi’s growing support on the social networking site. While the government often blocked websites deemed critical of the Islamic regime, the Facebook ban, issued at the end of May 2009, arguably aimed to undermine President Ahmadinejad’s opponent, whose campaign used blogs and social networking sites, including Facebook, to rally supporters. Instead of being prompted to update their statuses, Iranians trying to visit the website were greeted with the message, “Access to this site is not possible.”
Although Iranians have found ways to bypass Internet restrictions, by changing their IP addresses with a VPN (virtual private network), the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to virtually censor its citizens and punish those who circumvent restrictions. Charged with securing Iran from Internet crimes the Iranian Cyber Police (FATA) was created in January 2011. Since the inauguration of the new police unit, Iranian bloggers, online activists, and other Internet users have faced imprisonment and abuse. Most recently making international headlines was the arrest and subsequent death of Iranian blogger Sattar Beheshti. Arrested on October 30, 2012 on charges of “actions against national security on social networks,” Beheshti died on November 3, 2012. The charges were presumably linked to his political and social writings on his blog and Facebook. Although the details of his death are still unclear, Iranian prosecutors said Beheshti’s death may have been the result of “excessive psychological stress.”
Iran’s tumultuous relationship with the Internet continued through the end of the year with the launch of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s Facebook page. Although there is controversy over the legitimacy of the profile, as Facebook is banned by the government, the cleric’s profile has accumulated more than 4,000 “likes” since its December 13, 2012 launch.
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s official Internet censorship combined with officials’ recent use of selective banned mediums (including Facebook and Twitter) has caused confusion. Iran’s announcement that it is developing intelligent software to monitor social networking sites, thereby allowing citizens restricted access, added to international uncertainty about Iran’s Internet stance.
Arguably, there are pros and cons of unrestricted Internet use. Cyber bullying and stalking are just two of the many harmful uses for which people use the Internet. Despite the negative, people worldwide continue to connect to the Internet daily. Similar to the many debates over governments’ roles in private matters, we must ask ourselves how much any government should be allowed to control information access via the Internet. Is there such a thing as too much information?