8. Synopsis of thesis
To sum up the arguments presented in this thesis, there is little doubt that some of the most optimistic expectations to the Internet in the 1990s were unfounded and exaggerated. The Internet is not a magic vessel, and it does not exist in a political and cultural vacuum. Even though the information available on the Internet cannot be controlled, the points of access to it can, to some extent, as can the individuals who use it be intimidated and discouraged from seeking it out. Just because the Internet contains the potential for the democratization of information does not mean that this is an inevitable result of the ongoing development in a given country. Nations such as China and Singapore have demonstrated that authoritarian regimes do not necessarily lose their grip of power by introducing the Internet.However, despite the fact that the Internet’s potential for creating change may have been overrated, this does in no way indicate that it has to be negligible. Michael Chase and James Mulvenon point out the possibility that the Internet can facilitate democratization at a slower pace, which does not have to be inferior to quicker and more dramatic changes. Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor C. Boas suggest something similar, with the Internet playing a significant, but perhaps not stellar role in changing authoritarian states. The window of opportunity the Internet provides is perhaps not as wide-open as was hoped for in the early years. But there is still enough room for change to slip through.
My active tracking of this selection of weblogs stretched from the spring of 2004 to the early fall of 2004, or from about April to the middle of September. I found evidence that the censorship of Iranian English language weblogs has increased during my study period, and is more noticeable by September than it was in April. The majority of the blogs by Insiders I studied made clear references to incidents of more censorship and blocking of websites. In addition to this, several of the important Outsiders I visited posted comments about an ongoing crackdown on the Internet in the Islamic Republic, and some reported a sudden drop in daily visitors. There are some indications that bloggers inside Iran tend to be more anonymous and reveal less about their actual identity than Outsiders, but the difference is by no means clear-cut. The majority of the Insiders appear to be fully or partly anonymous, typically posting a contact email address and giving some personal information, but not enough to identify any specific individual. It is likely that at least some of the bloggers use anonymity as a shield against reactions and reprisals for politically sensitive remarks. As for communication between weblogs by Insiders and Outsiders, or Iranians in Iran and Iranians in exile, there is plenty of evidence of significant cross-linking between them, at least of permanent links. Some of the Insiders do make references and internal links to Outsiders even as late as July, August and September of 2004, and have links to non-censored Western or non-Iranian media. This strongly indicates that the censorship efforts of the Iranian regime, although maybe more noticeable, are not 100 per cent effective. Blogger Hossein Derakhshan suggests that a large part of his readership in Iran know how to use proxies and other techniques to get around censorship, and estimates that the crackdown has affected 30 to 40 percent of the Iranians in Iran who used to read his weblog. Although this number is impossible for me to verify, it does not sound unreasonable.
This master thesis is not a study of the Internet in Iran. Rather, it is a case study of a sample within a specific type of websites, English language weblogs, over a limited period of time. Generalizing from the samples to the universe is not the goal with case studies. Weblogs only form one small segment of the whole Internet, and blogs by Iranians in English form a small minority of this segment. It is risky to extrapolate any conclusions drawn from such a small percentage of the whole structure. In addition to this, it is quite possible that the censorship situation in Iran for Persian language websites, which of course form the vast majority for Iranians, is different from that of English language ones. In other words, my findings do not have to correspond to those of other types of websites, and in other languages. However, reports from several reliable sources elsewhere suggest they do, and that the study period of this thesis corresponds with a period of crackdowns on the Internet in general in Iran, not just weblogs or English language websites. According to information available from such sources as the Reporters Without Borders, the OpenNet Initiative and StopCensoringUs, the regime in the Islamic Republic of Iran staged a major crackdown on Freedom of Speech on the Internet in Iran during the summer of 2004, with increased censorship especially noticeable in June. As I finished my examinations about the 20th of September, there were rumors on some weblogs by Outsiders that the Iranian regime was considering launching an “intranet” for Iran only. Persons involved in some Persian language opposition websites within Iran have also been arrested in recent weeks, indicating that the crackdown on Internet liberties was still going on when this master thesis was completed. If that is the case, it could mean that the regime in Iran is trying to move in the direction of Far Eastern nations such as China and Singapore, in an attempt to emulate their relative success in controlling the Internet.
Amid this rather negative development, and what may seem like the false hope of freedom of speech created at the introduction of the Internet, some more positive notes should be made. On the 14th of September 2004, Hossein Derakhshan reported that a nation-wide poll in Iran showed that among various media, people have the most trust in the Internet (45.5%), followed by Iranian TV and Radio (43.7%), satellite channels (25.2%), press (23%), and foreign-based radios (20%). This of course explains why the regime is getting more serious in cracking down upon cyberspace. What is remarkable is that not more than 5-10 per cent of Iranians are active users of the Internet, yet it outranks all other media in trust, including foreign satellite channels, that are illegal, but widely watched. It could be taken as an indication that the Internet, despite censorship efforts, is still seen as the least censored of the available media alternatives.
One final comment: In New Media in the Muslim World – the Emerging Public Sphere, Dale F. Eickelman and Jon W. Anderson writes about how Iranians in exile in the 1970s smuggled audiocassettes – then a new medium – with information, speeches and sermons into Iran. The opposition to the Shahs regime, which culminated in the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, was partly facilitated by small media and new technology, slowly eroding the official censorship. Now, the children and grandchildren of that revolution are challenging the very regime that came into power 25 years ago, using small media and new technology in the shape of weblogs on the Internet. History is not without a sense of irony. And it sometimes repeats itself. Maybe it will do so this time, too?