Tuesday 14 February 2017

Iran: Internet Use Expands Exponentially

Historically, Iranians have embraced technology. The shah of Iran installed an indigenous telegraph system in 1857, less than two decades after the first commercial usage of telegraphy in the United Kingdom and just a decade after American companies began laying telegraph wires in earnest. The same held true for radio in the early twentieth century: while Saudi clerics condemned and resisted radio and later television, both Iranian political and religious leaders embraced the new technologies (and sought to co-opt them for their own purposes). The internet has led the 21st century communications revolution and, after early uncertainty, the Islamic Republic has embraced it, even as it strives to control what Iranians inside the country can see.

The accompanying passage from the Islamic Republic News Agency quotes Iran’s Communication Minister as saying that, since 2013, internet usage has “increased from 3.5 million to nearly 40 million users,” and that “internet penetration has increased to about 50 percent of our country.” While the Iranian Minister of Communication Vaezi can congratulate himself on expanding internet access exponentially, even if his numbers are accurate they are less impressive than they might look at first glance. According to the World Bank, the internet penetration rate in the United Kingdom and United States are 89.8 and 84.2 percent respectively. Iran is on par with China, which has a 45.8 percent penetration rate.

Iran’s population is 70 percent urban. If only 50 percent of Iran’s population use the internet, then in all likelihood, Iran’s rural population still lags behind in connectivity. However, if internet penetration continues to grow, the Iranian government may face security challenges. During the 1999 student unrest, Iranian authorities shut down the cell phone system. A decade later, after the post-election unrest, Iranian authorities clamped down on the internet and SMS technology. Technology increasingly provides workarounds to enable freedom from government systems; so news from beyond government sources may soon penetrate further into society. Whether this leads to unrest or better coordinated opposition movements remains to be seen, but Iranian authorities certainly have reason to be worried.



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