Arash Abadpour on a “Better Internet” in Iran

CGCS interviewed Arash Abadpour, blogger, researcher, and engineer, about his “Open Letter to the Future President of Iran,” in which Iranian Internet users described their version of a “better Internet” in a letter addressed to President- Elect Hassan Rouhani. Arash blogs here and his professional homepage can be found here.

Read the full report on the letter here.

What was your motivation for writing this letter and conducting this survey?

Iranians cannot use the Internet in the same fashion and with the same convenience that people in many other parts of the world can. There is no question about that. What is challenging here is that one group is deprived of the right to access the web and another group is advocating for the importance of giving the first group access to it. In other words, one side of the story is that many Iranians inside Iran want to be able to use the Internet at higher speeds and with the current filtering regime eliminated or restructured. The other side is the group of Iranians and non-Iranians who work on the different possibilities for allowing the first group access the Internet more freely. A significant percentage of the individuals in the second group are based outside Iran. In fact, many of the members of the second group are not currently operating in the environment, or may have never actually experienced the problem they are trying to solve. The existence of this divide warns me that the “better Internet for Iran” project can result in something meaningful only if communication between the two sides happens efficiently and regularly. Let me put it this way, Iranians want a “better Internet” and Internet activists talk about a “better Internet” for Iran. The question is, are these two groups on the same wavelength?

This open letter was an attempt to encourage Iranian Internet users to get into conversation with their President-elect, knowing that many of them were excited about his election. It was also an attempt to invite them to define what they think a “better Internet” is.

How did responses to your question “How do you define a better Internet?” build on or contradict findings within your archetypes report?

In both studies Access (Filtering) and Speed are the most frequently mentioned aspects of the Internet which users want modified (more than 70% of the participants in both studies highlight both Access and Speed). There is a minor difference here, though. In “Fights, Adapts, Accepts: Archetypes of Iranian Internet Use,” the dataset was significantly smaller and therefore it was possible to code the responses manually. There, we had different categories for Access, Filtering, and Reliability and about 80% of the participants emphasized Filtering. In the current work, we resorted to keyword-search and therefore we had to combine the three categories into one category because of the key word searching (this is discussed in more detail in the report).

In both groups, about 25% discuss the importance of more affordable pricing.

Other differences are also pointed out in the report. The sample in the Archetypes report put significantly more emphasis on better internet culture, and matters of security, and one of the theories for explaining this is that in the case of “Internet culture,” people talk about this very diversely, and use many different ways of describing what they mean by better Internet culture and proper web behavior in Iran. For something like price, however, that is a very defined set of terms and words. Also, the group who participated in this study are more likely to be more comfortable with the technological framework of the Internet, compared to the individuals interviewed in the Archetypes work, some of whom were not very technologically-savvy, and this was on purpose, so we could interview different kinds of people in Iran who use the Internet, not all of whom are seasoned users of the Internet or ICTs. Therefore, for this more tech-savvy sample, it is possible that the issue of security, for example, is not a major concern for them, because they are familiar with VPNs and other circumvention tools.

What are the most surprising or powerful responses you got?

The most powerful response to me was the volume of the responses. Right after the link was published on Twitter, we witnessed a flood of responses. This includes the reshares and retweets and also the signatures and the comments. This experiment essentially snowballed on social media, which was then boosted when BBC Persian and Radio Farda covered it.

What I understand from these reactions is that, one, Internet is still a powerful platform for conversation and engagement in Iran, and two, I relate the volume of the reaction to the specific timing of the work–the election period. I gather from this that many Iranians take it seriously. They showed it in the election that when there is possibility for voting for a person who they hope will make things better, they in fact do show up at the polling stations. Another interpretation of what happened in Iran two weeks ago is that many saw an opportunity to block the way of a candidate by voting for his opponent. Nevertheless, there was a possibility for improving the conditions and millions of Iranians capitalized on it. I see the fact that a few thousand people signed the open letter to Rouhani in the same light. People saw an opportunity to join an attempt to address their wishes for the Internet and acted on it. And that is where the third point comes in. When I read the letter now, I can imagine that it is written by someone situated in Iran, and that I believe was an important component in this experiment.

What does it mean that almost 90% of the people who signed the petition are living in Iran?

A friend of mine wrote a blog post that I hosted on my blog as a “guest letter.” He argued that “diaspora” is not a geographic term. In other words, you can live in Esfahan and Yazd and Tehran and still be in the diaspora, or live in Toronto and Washington and not be a member of the diaspora. He said in effect, and I am paraphrasing, that he finds himself more of an insider now that he has moved to Toronto, compared to when he lived in Tehran. The point is, the diaspora is futile, irrelevant, and often self-defeating. We must move back ‘in’ to be active again, but the good news is that you don’t have to get on a plane to move back to Iran.

The open letter to Rouhani was not written by a person in the diaspora, and I believe that that was one of the reasons that a few thousand people could relate to it. Interestingly, one of the participants asked Mr. Rouhani to give Iranians back their pride: “Please do something so that Iranians do not find themselves at the mercy of the American government to provide us means by which we can access the web.” There is a powerful message in here. My understanding is that the person who wrote this comment wants a better Internet, but not just that– he wants to be proud of his own country. He wants Mr. Rouhani, or whoever is the Iranian president, to give him the Internet. Not someone in Washington.

Some have speculated that due to an increasing concentration of control over the Internet under the offices of the Supreme Leader as opposed to the President, Rouhani will not have the power to make as many changes to the cyberspace sphere. Do you agree with this and does it make you less optimistic about the potential for changes to Iranian Internet policy?

An argument before and also after the election, and I sympathize with this argument, is that this is not about Dr. Rouhani. The point is not his election per se. It is about the process. We do know that the president is only one of the sources of power in Iran and that there are many things that are outside his reach. The point really is not to ask him to do this or that. The point here is to emphasis the importance of getting involved in conversation with the political structure, a project which has not been successful in the past thirty years in Iran, and also to discuss what an alternative way of doing things may look like. It is convenient to say that things are bad, especially in a country like Iran. The question is, do we have an alternative to offer? The letter tried to describe one alternative; that the aim is not to abandon control over the net, which is neither possible nor imaginable. It is to give the power back to the people.

This letter was an exercise in making demands known to the powers that be in Iran, and through the democratic framework. Also, this was an experiment to try to identify what it is that so many people demand. We knew very vaguely what it was, but we needed to talk about it. In addition to that, we practiced the possibility of saying “Mr. President, I want this,” as opposed to marching in the streets with slogans and posters, which is a tool, not the only tool, in the set of actions possible in any democratic society

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