Political and Religious Internet Censorship in China and Iran

*photo from digital trends.com

Last spring I wrote a thesis on political and religious internet censorship in China and Iran to graduate with special honors from the Elliott School of International Affairs at GWU. Since a few people have expressed interest in the research I did, I figured I’d post it here in case anyone else wants to sit down for an afternoon and read all 25 pages.

If you’re at all interested in the various kinds of internet censorship and how they’re implemented in different countries, I suggest you check it out. A lot of the academic information available about how internet censorship actually works is extremely technical and very confusing, so I’ve tried my best to describe it in a way that technologically illiterate people can understand. Also, if you’re interested in writing a research paper on this subject, I included my sources at the end so feel free to look them up.

Political and Religious Internet Censorship in China and Iran


            In this paper, I will compare and contrast Internet censorship in Iran and China. While China is widely known for censoring the Internet for political reasons, Iran claims to censor its citizens’ Internet for religious reasons. Because Islam is inherently political, it is the duty of the Iranian government to protect its people from harmful and anti-Muslim sites and information. However, through this paper I argue that the Iranian government’s use of censorship is primarily political; the use of religion is merely a justification for political censorship. Currently, China is the leading country in Internet censorship technology, policy and practice. By comparing China, a secular country, to Iran, I intend to show that censorship is much more similar in these two countries than it appears.

Political and Religious Internet Censorship in China and Iran

In a world of ever evolving technology, it has become increasingly difficult for many leaders to censor and control the flow of information. The development of the Internet in the nineteen-nineties has created a cosmopolitan world in which people from across the earth can communicate and share ideas and information. The development of Internet technology and social media web platforms have lead to an increased desire for democracy in many areas of the world; however, some nations have worked to curtail the freedom of information flow by developing complex Internet censorship programs. While Internet censorship is a highly relevant topic in today’s society, it is mainly divided into two categories: religious censorship, seen in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, and political censorship, seen in nations like China and North Korea. While at first glance, censorship in these two countries seems to have vastly different justifications, the reasoning behind this censorship is much more similar than it appears on the surface.

While Iran and China both practice Internet censorship, the two are rarely compared or contrasted in today’s scholarly literature. By separating these two nations in academic discussion, it is easy to miss the political motives of Islamic governments in the Middle East. There is a tendency to categorize and compare censorship in Middle Eastern countries, because of their similar religious backgrounds. By comparing Islamic countries to one another, it is easy to miss important connections and similarities between seemingly religious censorship and secular political censorship. By comparing a secular leader in Internet Censorship to the Islamic country Iran, I will bring a new perspective to the academic discussion of Internet Censorship for political stability and gain.

In this research, I will use two fundamental international political theories: Realism and Idealism. If one were to argue an Idealist perspective, Iran and China’s differing religious and social ideologies would produce vastly different censorship philosophies. Iran, an Islamic state, would primarily censor information that damages religious values or infringes on religious social norms. China, as an authoritarian and secular state with a booming economy, would focus on censoring information that would infringe upon governmental authority or economic success. The lack of comparison of religious and secular nations in the academic discussion of Internet censorship works to propagate the Idealist perspective. The ideology of these two nations is vastly different; therefore, it is unlikely that their motives for Internet censorship are similar. In this paper, I will argue the Realist perspective. Iran and China are both competitive authoritarian regimes that work to keep power by maintaining legitimacy. Iran’s Ayatollah obtains legitimacy through Islam, while the authority of the Chinese Communist Party is legitimized through economic development. Any information that challenges these two authorities must be eradicated.

In my research, I have worked with a variety of data and information. First, it was important to understand the technology behind Internet censorship, through reading academic technological discussions comparing and contrasting differing types of Internet censorship. I also worked with scholarly articles to fully understand the political and technological realties of censorship in both China and Iran. I reviewed law documents to understand the laws justifying censorship in these two nations. Finally, I reviewed lists of blocked websites, as well as statistical information listing the number of citizens with access to computers and personal Internet. In this way I worked with qualitative and quantitative information, as well as primary and secondary documents.

To analyze my data I primarily used historical and comparative analysis. I examined both China and Iran in a historical context, focusing on the political and cultural changes since the invention of the Internet, as well as any relevant historical information that impacts the current political culture. In my research, I also used a comparative analysis, gathering similar types of information on the political realities and censorship practices of both China and Iran. Through these methods, I was able to examine the historical and political atmospheres of both China and Iran, while obtaining relevant information to compare and contrast Internet censorship in both of these countries.

While I designed my research to accurately compare censorship in these two nations, there are some limitations. The first is that governments are very hesitant to speak directly about censorship, especially motives behind why certain sites are censored. Secondly, it is difficult to know what percentage of citizens use virtual proxy networks to circumvent government restrictions. Since the use of these networks are illegal, there is no exact information as to how many people use VPNs. Finally, living in China for seven months has given me a very accurate idea of the level of restrictions present through internet censorship. I am very aware of which sites are blocked, and how the young Chinese generation feels about censorship in China; however, I do not have this same level of immersion in Iran.

In order to narrow my scope and topic, I decided to focus on a specific aspect of censorship, while comparing and contrasting two chosen countries. By focusing on Internet censorship, rather than censorship as a whole, I am able to study the unique characteristics and difficulties in censoring an aspect of society that is rapidly changing and necessary to economic growth. Also, by focusing my research on Internet censorship, I am able to narrow my historic scope. The Internet and personal computer are fairly recent inventions historically, which allows me to focus on how the development of Internet censorship has evolved over the course of the last twenty years. Finally, by comparing and contrasting two countries, rather than political and religious censorship, I am more able to focus my research on specific examples. I chose China and Iran as representations of a political reality. While Iran may not be representative of all Islamic nations that practice Internet censorship, I chose Iran as an example of an Islamic nation that claims to practice religious censorship, but may have reason to exercise political censorship in the interest of maintaining control. In this way, I can examine Iran’s recent political history and show that religious censorship may be used as legitimacy for political interests.

Upon hearing the term “Internet censorship” many people imagine strict government censorship systems seen in countries like China and North Korea; citizens lacking access to current news and social media websites imposed by the government. However, many Western countries also practice Internet Censorship. Before diving into the complex world of political Internet censorship in China and Iran, it is important to understand the basics of Internet censorship technology, as well as the different and complex ways in which it can be used. When academics, journalists, or Internet users discuss ‘‘Internet censorship,’’ they are usually referring to the inability of users in a given country to access a specific piece of online content (Zuckerman 71). While the definition of Internet censorship is very broad, it can be used in many different ways.

According to Christopher Stevenson, author of “Breaching the Great Firewall: China’s Internet Censorship and the Quest for Freedom of Expression in a Connected World”, one commonly used form of Internet censorship is censorship through laws, or banning material deemed inappropriate (534). The United States’ banning of child pornography is an example of this type of censorship. In the United States, it is common knowledge that it is illegal to upload any content relating to pornographic images, videos or information of any individual under the age of eighteen. Many citizens do not realize that this is a form of Internet censorship, albeit to protect the livelihood of minors. Australia also recently passed the “Broadcasting Services Amendment”, which bans X18 materials, sexually explicit materials involving consenting adults, from appearing on the Internet, while R18, content deemed disturbing or harmful to those under the age of eighteen, material must be limited to age-restricting websites (Stevenson 535). The banning of pornographic material and violent imagery is a form of Internet censorship practiced in many Western countries. In the case of Australia, the government does not search for prohibited content, and merely relies on public complaints (Stevenson 535). In this way, the censorship is considered retroactive, as opposed to proactive. A proactive form of censorship, seen in countries such as China, is censorship by active filtering (Stevenson 356). This implies that the government is actively searching for censored material.

In the early days of the Internet, most Web sites were managed by organizations that controlled the content posted on the sites, the server software that delivered Web pages, and the server hardware that ran the code. While some Web sites are still managed in this way, Ethan Zuckerman, a prominent figure in Internet censorship research and Harvard University, states that the vast majority of Web site developers rent server space from Web hosting companies or use free Web hosting services like Tripod.com or WordPress.com (Zuckerman 72). These OSPs provide services to millions of users; most of which would lack the means and technical skill to maintain their own Web servers. Sites that allow publishing in more complex community interactions, like Facebook or other social media sites, would be extremely difficult for even a sophisticated user to reproduce (Zuckerman 72). Under legal or coercive pressure from the local government, these companies can block content or reveal sensitive information about users.

While censoring and blocking areas of the Internet seems simple, it requires advanced technology to implement efficiently. A simple way to circumvent government controls is to purchase a VPN, or virtual proxy network. While living in China, I was able to access many proxy network sites to purchase a VPN using China’s censored internet; however, these sites were only available when searched on Google.cn using English, as opposed to Chinese. After purchasing a VPN, a user can log into this virtual proxy network and the Internet will act as if the user is residing in a different country, usually the United States or the United Kingdom. In addition to proxy sites, there is also the issue of Internet user anonymity. It is extremely difficult to arrest dissidents online, as they can easily use nicknames or fake identities on the web (Rahimi 110). One way of circumventing this issue is by banning the use of fake identities in email, social media or chat room contexts. In China, Internet users must use government identification to create an email address or log on at a cyber café (Stevenson 539). However, this requires great oversight and technology. Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, did not even grant access to the Internet until they had developed sufficient monitoring technology (Stevenson 536).

According to Stevenson, many scholars believed the invention of the Internet would lead to the destruction of oppressive regimes as their citizens gained access to new ideas and information (Stevenson 537). Therefore, for democracy-promoting nations such as the United States, Internet freedom is a very important issue. Clay Shirky states in his article “Political Power of the Social Media”, in January 2010, U.S. Secretary of Sate Hillary Clinton outlined how the US would promote Internet freedom abroad. She emphasized several kinds of freedom, including the freedom to access information, the freedom of ordinary citizens to produce their own public media, and freedom of citizens to converse with one another, such as the Chinese public’s capacity to use instant messaging without interference (Shirky 30-31). Just as Martin Luther adopted the newly practical printing press to protest against the Catholic Church, and the American revolutionaries synchronized their beliefs using the postal service that Benjamin Franklin had designed; Shirky claims that today’s dissident movements will use any means possible to frame their views and coordinate their actions (32).

In addition to Internet censorship, it is also important to understand the role of social media in today’s society. Since the rise of the Internet in the early 1990s, the world’s networked population has grown from the low millions to the low billions. Over the same period, social media have become a fact of life for civil society worldwide, involving many actors- regular citizens, activists, nongovernmental organizations, telecommunications firms, software providers, and governments (Shirky 28). Social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and Google Spaces can connect people from all over the world, encouraging the flow of information and ideas. For example, Facebook allows a user to plan “an event”, which can be made private or public. Public “events” can be shared with anyone who is a Facebook “friend” of the creator. If the event creator chooses to allow event attendees to invite their Facebook “friends”, the event can spread indefinitely. In his article, “Political Power of the Social Media”, Shirky states, “Social media have become coordinating tools for nearly all of the world’s political movements, just as most of the world’s authoritarian governments are trying to limit access to it” (Shirky 30). The Egyptian revolution is a prime example of the use of social media to rally against the government, in which dissidents used Facebook to plan an anti-governmental protest. Therefore, it is important for many governments to limit access to social media and stifle potential dissidence. Shirky also states that Social media can compensate for the disadvantages of undisciplined groups by reducing the costs of planning and coordination. Because of this, larger, looser groups can now create coordinated action, such as protest movements and public media campaigns, that were previously limited to formal organizations (Shirky 35).

While many countries attempt to censor the Internet while maintaining a vibrant economy, China’s censorship policy is the most sophisticated and effective. According to Stephenson, China uses a “complex system of laws, technology, and human oversight” in their censorship policy and practice (Stevenson 537). The Chinese system has evolved from a relatively simple filter of incoming Internet traffic in the mid-1990s to a sophisticated operation that not only limits outside information but also uses nationalism and public morals to encourage operators of Chinese Web services to censor their users and users to censor themselves (Shirky 39). Because China’s goal is to prevent information from inciting political dissidence, the state does not need to censor the Internet comprehensively, it merely needs to minimize access to potentially harmful information. This explains why I was able to access sites to purchase a VPN in English, but not in Chinese; the Chinese government works to limit citizens’ access to blocked information, but is not concerned with foreign expats and international Western students.

The first Chinese Internet censorship law was passed in 1996, titled “Interim Provisions Governing Management of Computer Information Networks in the People’s Republic of China Connecting to the International Network” (Stevenson 537). The law and its amendments effectively prevents users from accessing any website or content that is not approved by the government. This includes any content that “divulges state secrets, subverts the government, opposes the state’s policy on religion, advocates cults or feudal superstitions, disrupts social order, or shows obscenity, pornography, gambling or violence” (Stevenson 538).  It also mandates that all Internet information services must be licensed or registered with the authorities. If these sites provide news, bulletin board, publishing or “other services”, site operators must record the IP address and domain name of all web content. Internet Service Providers must also record the amount of time users spend online, their account numbers, IP addresses, and dial-up numbers and retain this information for 60 days. If the ISP discovers prohibited information they must remove the content immediately and records of the event must be retained and sent to the appropriate authorities (Stevenson 538).

China is extremely specific when listing what information is acceptable for online display. According to Stevenson, as of 2005, any news or current events published online must be information released by an official government agency (539). As stated previously, Chinese users must also use government identification to create an email address or log on at a cyber café (Stevenson 539). This aids the government in tracking users who post politically sensitive, anti-governmental or otherwise censored information. In addition to mandating ISPs to censor information and divulge the personal information of users, China has also created a voluntary “Pledge of Self Regulation and Professional Ethics for China Internet Industry”, which requires Internet companies to censor information and refrain from posting illegal information (Stevenson 540). If these laws do not comprehensively censor the Internet, the Chinese government has also created a system in which citizens can report websites that contain illegal information (Stevenson 540).

In addition to laws, Chinese Internet censorship technology also greatly surpasses that of any other nation. In 1996, China developed a two-tiered Internet system. The first tier is available to the greater public outside China; however, to access the first tier, Chinese citizens must go through a second tier, which is controlled by the Chinese government (Stevenson 540). In this way, the Chinese government can directly control which sites of the first tier that citizens can access. This complex use of coercion and advanced technology to censor the Internet is commonly referred to as the “Great Firewall of China”.

The greatest difficulty China has faced in censoring the Internet is working with ISPs from outside the country, mainly the United States. If China cannot coerce the ISP to restrict information and report dissident users, the site is blocked. This is the case for many American social media and entertainment platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WordPress. Google initially resisted the Chinese censorship system and China blocked access to the site in early 2002. However, in 2006, Google announced its own limited Internet search engine, Google.cn, that would be hosted in China. The site’s search results only display links to sites to in which the Chinese government does not object. To avoid collecting user-identifying information, Google.cn lacks e-mail and blogging capabilities seen in Google.com (Stevenson 543-544). Additionally, in April 2006, Skype admitted that the co-branded Chinese version of the Skype text chat product filtered users’ messages based on a list of banned keywords. According to Zuckerman, in 2008, Internet researcher Nart Villeneuve discovered that the TOM Skype software was not merely blocking keywords, but also surveilling users, and storing conversations in which specific keywords had been mentioned (Zuckerman 72). In June 2005, Microsoft was also accused of using similar techniques to block content on their Chinese language version of MSN Spaces. An attempt to start a blog titled ‘‘I love freedom of speech, human rights and democracy’’ in Chinese yielded an error message that translates as ‘‘You must enter a title for your space. The title must not contain prohibited language, such as profanity. Please type a different title.’’ (Zuckerman 73).

To account for the lack of social media sites in China such as Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, China has created its own versions of these sites, titled Ren Ren, Weibo, and Youku. If one were to examine these sites, they are almost carbon copies of the American originals; however users must enter a government ID to create an account. Since these sites are government owned, the Chinese government can track and monitor any individual, as well as delete any unwanted posts or content. Because these sites provide interfaces in Chinese, they are easier to use than U.S.-based sites; while these sites engage in censorship to avoid government sanctions, most users will not notice the censorship until they try to post about sensitive topics (Zuckerman 74). If the only reason for a Chinese Internet user to seek out content from a banned site is political, it is much easier for an authoritarian regime to justify Internet censorship.

While China is easily the world leader in Internet censorship technology and practice, Iran originally held a much more open policy. For example, Iran was the second country in the Middle East, after Israel, to gain access to the Internet (Rahimi 102). According to Babak Rahimi, the author of “Ciberdissident: the Internet in Revolutionary Iran”, Internet use in Iran was first promoted by the government to provide an alternative means of scientific and technological advancement during the troubled economic period that followed the Iran-Iraq War (102). Contrary to expectations at the time, the Islamic Republic originally welcomed the Internet by allowing commercial and educational sectors to access it without interference. Whereas in China, Internet technology was largely developed by the state in the form of an intra-governmental communications network, Iran’s first experience with the Internet occurred within the university system (Rahimi 102). Between the academic sector and the help of ISPs, commercial industries in Iran have maintained an active presence on the Net (Rahimi 203). For example, the rapid growth of the Internet in the commercial sphere has contributed to the development of entrepreneurship and an increased middle class by providing an opportunity to invest in domestic markets (Rahimi 103).

For most of its short history in Iran, the Internet has been free of control and regulation. Unlike other Middle Eastern states, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Iran has encouraged the expansion of the Internet, and the state has actively participated in its development (Rahimi 105). According to Rahimi, there were several reasons for the absence of Internet control under Rafasanjani’s regime. The most basic reason is that the Iranian government simply has been unable to overcome the technical challenges involved; Iran is far behind China’s advanced technological censorship infrastructure. Secondly, the economic benefits, in tandem with the continuing privatization schemes encouraged by the government have remained a major factor contributing to the state’s reluctance to control the Internet (Rahimi 104). Rahimi also argues that, “In an attempt to alleviate political pressure while projecting an aura of ‘modernization’ and engagement with advancing global technology, both reformists and some conservative authorities have hailed the internet as an innovate medium to promote the Islamic Republic” (Rahimi 104).

In contrast to many other Islamic nations, the Internet is widely popular in Iran. Internet access, particularly in Tehran, has developed to a level of sophistication that exceeds that of some European nations. For example, Rahimi states that ParsOnline, one of the biggest Internet service providers in Iran, recently offered Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) connections at 2 megabits per second, four times faster than that available to users in the United Kingdom (Rahimi 103). The Internet’s popularity has surpassed the initial expectations of IPM, Iran’s main academic service provider, who initially treated the Internet merely as a medium to exchange scientific ideas within the inter- university system. The situation was similar to the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the U.S. Department of Defense and academic institutions placed computers in the exclusive hands of experts (Rahimi 103). However, within just a decade, the community of Internet users in Iran has enlarged beyond a small number of specialists within academic institutions and spread to the public.

One of the main contributions to this technological boom is Iran’s exponentially increasing youth population. Iran’s population has increased tremendously since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, and it is believed that currently more than 70 percent of Iran’s population was born after the 1979 revolution. While in most countries it has been the youth that has led the Internet revolution, no industrialized country has a demographic structure where the youth are so disproportionate to the rest of the population (Rahimi 104). By 2001, Tehran alone boasted 1,500 Internet cafes, making Iran one of the leading countries in the Middle East in terms of the number of Internet cafes per major metropolitan area (Rahimi 104). However, this growth in Internet access is not limited to the cities. As former university students return to their villages from urban universities, many introduce their rural families and friends to the Internet and it’s capabilities. In doing so, the rural areas have become exposed to the outside world to a degree that was previously inconceivable. It is this phenomenon in particular that has made the Internet revolution reach far wider and deeper than would otherwise be expected (Rahimi 104).

While Iran did not originally practice Internet censorship, political strife and discontent has lead Iran to employ many of the policies seen in China. During the revolutionary era, the Islamic Republic was greatly aided by the mass media. The use of audiotapes and short-wave radios were particularly effective at spreading the words of Ayatollah Khomeini, and were a major factor in the revolution’s success. The tapes both encouraged the propagation of the Shi‘a ideology that was the backbone of the revolutionary spirit during that era, and assisted political activists on the grassroots level, as young Iranians listened, recorded, and disseminated the tapes to their fellow revolutionaries to encourage dissent against the Shah’s regime (Rahimi 106). With the arrival of the Internet, dissidents can spread ideology and information with the click of a mouse; therefore, it is very easy for current dissidents to employ the same strategy that the current Islamic government used to come into power. This fear of another revolution in Iran has caused the Iranian government to employ many of the techniques used in China.

After the revolution of 1979, Iran has institutionalized two distinct categories of political authority: one being the elected Majlis (parliament) and the presidency; the other, an appointed branch whose main component is the clerical office of Velayat-e Faqih, a deputy claiming to represent the Hidden Mahdi, the Twelfth Imam of the Shi’a religion. In this system, the elected branch, and secular authority is subordinate to the appointed clerical elite, who claim to represent the ultimate source of authority (Rahimi 107). It was not until 1997 that the Internet began to emerge as a political threat to the regime, as Muhammad Khatami won over 70 percent of the votes in the race for president (Rahimi 106). Since then, many political dissidents have used Internet freedom of speech to advocate for policy and regime change. The protests during the summer of 1999 by Iranian students, exemplify the growing wave of popular discontent with the authorities. With the majority of the population backing the students and reform-minded intellectuals, the reformist movement, known as the May 23rd movement, created a distinct period in the history of revolutionary Iran, with the potential to undermine the authoritarian features of the Islamic Republic and replace it with a democratic one (Rahimi 107).

The fact that the Internet has been free of control for most of its development in Iran has given it a unique role in the current political situation. It has provided an alternative platform for which the reformist movement can challenge the government. While politics and freedom of speech are very constrained in Iran, the Internet has opened a new domestic arena of contestation, accommodating numerous dissident groups (Rahimi 107-108). The Internet has also become a powerful tool for grassroots democracy advocates, which have become synonymous with the Iranian student movement. During the summer of 1999, the internet played an important role in the uprising in which Iranian students mobilized against the conservatives in chat rooms, organized meetings, interacted and communicated electronically, as the state continued to close down public places of political interaction online (Rahimi 108).

Even with the adaptation of Internet censorship, many dissidents are easily able to circumvent limited government technology. In the more recent Green Revolution, in 2009, activists used every possible technological coordinating tool to protest the miscount of votes for Mir Hossein Mousavi, but were ultimately dismantled by a violent government response (Shirky 29). According to Shirky, the One Million Signatures Campaign, an Iranian women’s rights movement that focuses on the repeal of laws inimical to women, has been more successful in liberalizing the behavior of the Iranian government than the more confrontational Green Movement (Shirky 35). The use of the Internet allows these women to act within a political sphere that would not have been otherwise available.

It was not until 2003 that the Iranian government produced any systematic strategy to block Internet websites or filter content (Rahimi 104). However, the rapidly changing technology and advance of Social Media, has inhibited the government’s ability to censor accurately. Gregory Starrett, author of “Islam in the Digital Age: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas, and Cyber Islamic Environments”, suggests that a substantial number of Muslims use the Internet as a propagation and networking tool, to communicate and to conduct research; For some, it is an important way to bypass state censorship and access other media. He states that, “The Internet is used to disseminate and obtain decisions and points of interpretation on current events, and, for some individuals who are relatively unknown or treated as pariahs locally, to achieve fame in the larger ummah” (Starrett 97). In addition, Rahimi suggests that the expansion of the Internet amidst the ongoing conflict between reformist and conservative factions in Iran indicates its growing importance in Iranian politics. It has also demonstrated the Internet’s impact on the everyday life of the Iranian public, a phenomenon that could hasten the realization of democratic rule (Rahimi 101).

In addition to political dissidence, Iran has used the Internet to challenge Islamic social control. For example, the rise of “coffee-nets” have become an inexpensive way for the young to converse online, challenge the Islamic government and its oppressive imposition of moral guidelines for the separation of the sexes in everyday public places. Another related phenomenon is the 20,000 active internet sites and weblogs, online journals in which Iranians meet to chat about the latest news in their personal lives, politics, or sports; which enables young Iranians to express themselves freely and anonymously on various subjects (Rahimi 104). One of the most famous blogs is a former prostitute’s weblog, which details the underworld life of Iranian society. This blog demonstrates how Iranians are defying the moral code imposed by the Islamic government; these intimate online diaries offer insight into the lives of Iranian youth who have grown up under strict Islamic laws (Rahimi 104). In this way, the Internet has given a voice to many people, specifically women, who are constrained in everyday society by an Islamic moral code. Although Internet access providers are responsible for preventing access to “immoral” and anti-government sites, these legal constraints are difficult to implement. Many Iranian ISPs have operated relatively freely, at times even openly defying the state by offering “uncensored” or unfiltered services to the public (Rahimi 104).

With political dissent on the rise, Iran has been working tirelessly to implement an effective censorship system akin to its control of media and journalism. The implementation of broad censorship has been most evident since the 6th parliamentarian election in March 2000, when the conservatives launched a series of repressive measures targeting the reformist-dominated press. The conservatives banned news agencies and imprisoned some of those agencies’ leaders. The targeting of the reformist press generated resentment between the political factions within the state institutions, such as between the parliament and the Assembly of Experts, an Islamic branch that monitors and appoints the supreme leader (Rahimi 107). Since late 2001, the conservatives have worked to restrict Internet use in the same way that they have attempted to control satellite television. According to Rahimi, their aim is “not only to blot out the ‘immoral’ sites, transmitted from the West, but also political websites critical of the state” (109). On November 7, 2001, the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution, a conservative dominated body, declared that ISPs must remove anti-government and “anti-Islamic” sites from their servers, and that all Internet service providers should be placed under state control (Rahimi 109). A year later, the supreme council ordered a new commission to create a list of illegal sites. At the same time, the Judiciary chief, Ayatollah Shahroudi, called for the “establishment of a special committee for legal investigation of internet-related crimes and offenses,” and proposed the creation of a new legal office to deal especially with Internet offenses (Rahimi 109).

With more journalists in prison and more newspapers banned than any other Islamic Middle Eastern country, Iran now leads in Middle Eastern censorship (Rahimi 110). Unlike other media forms, however, regulating the Internet is much more difficult. With some Iranian ISPs based outside of Iran, the clerical regime must employ Chinese tactics of creating its own social media cites that it can control. According to Sara Reardon, author of “Iran’s Halal Internet”, Iranian officials have talked about creating a “halal” Internet, a religiously acceptable internal network isolated from the World Wide Web. Its purpose, they claim, would be to provide national cybersecurity and promote Islamic moral values (Reardon 21). In this way, Iran’s Halal Internet would model China’s dual tier Internet. Reardon states, “The internal network will contain Iran-specific content and own-brand versions of popular services – a generic Facebook, say. The government would then throttle connections to outside networks […] rendering them unusably slow, forcing everyone onto the national network” (Reardon 21). Therefore, Iran will attempt to create an exact replica of China’s leading Internet censorship system. Comparing today’s Iran with the Iran of the nineteen nineties, this increased level of censorship is shocking. In this time period, the regime and religious beliefs have stayed constant; therefore, one can only assume that it is fear of political dissidence that has created this “internet crackdown”.

While Iran is working to create a national Halal Internet system, it still pales in comparison to China’s Internet control. Last year Iran shut down Google services, including Gmail, in response to an anti-Islam YouTube video that has caused violent protests. When ordinary citizens could not access services they had come to rely on, they protested until the government relented and restored Gmail. To prevent such a backlash in the future, Iran would have to provide an alternative email system that can rival Gmail (Reardon 21). Trade embargoes have also made it difficult for Iran to import electronics, especially devices that can track or spy on people; However, Chinese firms have recently begun to sell this equipment to Iran (Reardon 21). While many Chinese citizens are unaware of Virtual Private Networks, VPN’s are common knowledge in Iranian society; Therefore, Iran will need to develop technology to block access to VPN sites (Reardon 21).

Iran’s desire to model its Internet censorship after China, has also given Iran similar legitimacy problems to those seen in China today. When oppressive regimes shut down popular sites like Facebook and YouTube, it can hinder political protests, but also alerts ordinary citizens to censorship they may otherwise not have noticed (Reardon 21). Ethan Zuckerburg calls this the “Cute Cat Theory” of Internet censorship, in which specific tools designed to defeat state censorship, such as proxy servers, can be shut down with little political penalty, but broader tools that the larger population uses to, for example, share pictures of cute cats, are much harder to shut down” (Shirky 37). This “Cute Cat Theory” can easily be seen in China, in which all young Chinese citizens are aware that they are not able to access Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, and believe this level of censorship is unfair. While they are somewhat content with the Chinese equivalents, the idea that the international version has been taken from them creates a crisis of legitimacy for the government. The condition of shared awareness creates what is commonly called “the dictator’s dilemma”; in which increased globalization forces a state accustomed to having a monopoly on public speech to account for anomalies between its view of events and the public’s (Shirky 36). Shirky also argues that if a government were to shut down Internet access or ban cell phones, it would risk radicalizing otherwise pro-regime citizens or harming the economy (37).

Authoritarian governments stifle communication among their citizens because they fear, correctly, that a better-coordinated populace would constrain their ability to act without oversight. However, the “Cute Cat Theory” and “dictator’s dilemma” are prime examples of how censorship can cause increased political strife. When the government of Bahrain banned Google Earth after an annotated map of the royal family’s annexation of public land began circulating, the effect was to alert far more Bahrainis to the offending map than knew about it originally (Shirky 39).

Similarly, many scholars and activists agree that the Chinese government today is in more danger of being forced to adopt democratic norms by middle-class members of the ethnic Han majority demanding less corrupt local governments than it is by Uighurs or Tibetans demanding autonomy (Shirky 35). For example, the Chinese anticorruption protesters of the devastating May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan were parents, particularly mothers, who had lost their only children in the collapse of shoddily built schools, the result of collusion between construction firms and the local government. Before the earthquake, corruption in the country’s construction industry was an open secret. But when the schools collapsed, citizens began sharing documentation of the damage and of their protests through social media tools (Shirky 36). The Chinese government originally allowed reporting of the post-earthquake protests, but abruptly began censoring the protests when it became clear that the protesters were demanding real local reform and not merely state reparations. According to Shirky,

“From the government’s perspective, the threat was not that citizens were aware of the corruption, which the state could do nothing about in the short run. Beijing was afraid of the possible effects if this awareness became shared: it would have to either enact reforms or respond in a way that would alarm more citizens. After all, the prevalence of camera phones has made it harder to carry out a widespread but undocumented crackdown” (Shirky 36).

If Iran continues to follow in the footsteps of China, the Islamic leadership may face an increased crisis of legitimacy.

Overall, it is overtly apparent that Iran’s censorship of the Internet is political, rather than religious. While implemented by an Islamic government, both Iran and China, censor the same types of information. Even content centered gambling and prostitution, seemingly religious, is also censored in China, where the majority of citizens are agnostic or atheist. By specifically targeting dissident movements and reformist journalists, the political nature of Iran’s censorship is apparent to Iran’s citizens, creating a “crisis of legitimacy” for Islamic Iranian leaders, and a call for democracy in Iran. Because of this, it is important that when discussing censorship, Islamic and secular countries both be included in the academic discussion, otherwise, it is far to easy to miss important similarities that may define the overall nature and origin of the motives for censorship. If Western nations wish to help promote democracy in countries such as Iran, it is pertinent that they not only examine the situation of censorship through a religious lens, but a “realist” power ploy perspective as well.

Works Cited

1. Ethan Zuckerman, “Intermediary Censorship,” in Access Controlled: The Shaping of

Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace, ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010) 71. Print

2. Rahimi, Babak. “Cyberdissent: the Internet in Revolutionary Iran.” Middle East 7.3

(2003): 102.

3. Reardon, Sara. “Inside Iran’s “halal” internet.” New Scientist 216.2886 (2012): 21.

4. Shirky, Clay. “Political Power of Social Media-Technology, the Public Sphere

Sphere, and Political Change, The.” Foreign Aff. 90 (2011): 28. Print.

5. Starrett, Gregory. “, :Islam in the Digital Age: E‐Jihad, Online Fatwas, and Cyber

Islamic Environments.” History of Religions 46.3 (2007): 268. Print

6. Stevenson, Christopher. “Breaching the Great Firewall: China’s Internet

7. Censorship and the Quest for Freedom of Expression in a Connected World.” Boston College International and Comparative Law Review (2007): 531. Print.



About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

1 comments on “Political and Religious Internet Censorship in China and Iran

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