Millions of Iranians experienced disruptions in Internet service last weekend, arousing suspicions of increased government censorship as next month’s parliamentary elections loom.
Access to email, search engines, and social networking sites was slow to non-existent during server interruptions that began on Friday and lasted until at least Monday, disrupting business and personal communications throughout the country.
Rising tensions between the current regime and the opposition party will likely fuel further censorship attempts, as Iran prepares to hold parliamentary elections on March 2 for the first time since President Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009, which resulted in violence between protesters and government-backed police.
“Green Party” opposition members, hoping to free two of their imprisoned leaders, Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, are rumored to be planning protests Tuesday, which could be a possible catalyst for the restricted access.
Iran likely is aware of the role social media and the Internet played in various Arab Spring revolutions in the region, and is safeguarding against possible unrest by locking down Internet at the politically sensitive time.
The Iranian government denies playing any part in the interference, but its relationship with the Internet, particularly sites affiliated with the U.S., is tense.
“The Internet is an uninvited guest which has entered our country,” said Mohammad Reza Aghamiri of the Iranian government’s Internet filtering committee. “And because of its numerous problems, severe supervision is required.”
Aghamiri also went on to say he believes “Google is at the service of the CIA.”
Such extreme government views mean Iranian citizens could lose international online access altogether. In 2009, the government announced plans to launch a regulated national Internet system excluding all non-Iranian web sites, similar to the one in place in North Korea, but has not put the system into place yet.
Thomas Erdbrink, a Washington Post reporter stationed in Tehran, says for “normal Iranians,” such a system is “comparable to an office Internet, a closed-off environment in which a couple of IT managers will only decide which sites people can visit and which sites they cannot visit.”
Iranian citizens wishing to browse the Internet must already do so via illegal Virtual Private Network (VPN) software, which routes their connection through international cyber portals. But recently, according to Erdbrink, the government took action to end such methods, and access is becoming more restricted.
Mounting political tension with the United States over Iran’s alleged nuclear technology places the public at a disadvantage if information is restricted, isolating them from world news and perhaps endangering citizens unaware of rising conflict.
Friction will likely continue to mount as the parliamentary elections approach, and the Iranian government may take more action to promote their regime and slow citizens’ access to the outside world.