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The Internet and Network Structures in Iran

In a seminar on human rights in Iran, held in San Jose last weekend, one of the panels explicitly discussed how the Internet has emerged as a major social network structure in Iranian society. The panel director, Alireza Azizi, opened the discussion by explaining the growing role and importance of the Internet among different Iranian political activists and how it has affected their social networking practices. He argued that based on social statistics, Iranians trust the information on the Internet more than the official media in Iran.

The discussion continued on how some Iranian networks have been created based on the Internet and it was argued they could not exist without this networking tool. Parastoo Forouhar argued that Internet allows new ideas and movements to break the boundaries of governments and to spread around the world. Particularly in a society like Iran, where the Government suppresses the media and social life has been limited to private platforms, the role of the Internet as an important rival platform needs careful consideration.

Soheila Vahdaty argued that the international reactions towards some of the human rights violations and arrests in Iran have been a significant constraint for governmental actions. Considering the media environment in Iran, these reflections would have been impossible without the Internet. The major advantage in these cases is that the Internet is extremely fast and networking is widespread. Once news on human rights violation is released online, the UN immediately reacts to it by contacting Iran’s ambassadors in European countries, putting the Government under pressure to consider international opinion. The Internet has been extremely effective at mobilizing international networks particularly in cases of capital punishment of children.

The panel then discussed the limitations and disadvantages of the Internet. Arsham Parsi argued that there is no control on the publication of news on the Internet and this allows for a great deal of spam and misuse of the platform for false news and statements. Azarm Fanni raised an interesting issue about how the Internet limits network activities to the virtual world. When Iranians rely on the Internet as the primary forum for political expression and protest, it is easy to forget other alternatives for dissent in the real world. This is a concern we’ve heard from a number of Iran watchers, that an unintended consequence of the Internet’s use in Iran is that it allows individuals to complain and let off steam online, inadvertently preventing action in the real world.

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