The Arab Spring hasn’t been kind to countless Middle East dictatorships. Internet censorship has been a key plank of trying to maintain order in the face of a massive popular uprising. At least in Egypt we’ve now seen former Mubarak ministers and the former President himself being fined for daring to cut internet connections and mobile phone services during the revolution.
For weeks, Syrian democracy activists have used Facebook and Twitter to promote a wave of bold demonstrations. Now, the Syrian government and its supporters are striking back — not just with bullets, but with their own social-media offensive.
Mysterious intruders have scrawled pro-government messages on dissidents’ Facebook pages. Facebook pages have popped up offering cyber tools to attack the opposition. The Twitter #Syria hashtag — which had carried accounts of the protests — has been deluged with automated messages bearing scenes of nature and old sports scores.
“There is a war itself going on in cyberspace,” said Wissam Tarif, head of the Middle East human rights organization Insan, whose Web site has been attacked.
Syria offers just one example of the online backlash in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. Although social media sites have been lionized for their role in the Arab Spring protests, governments are increasingly turning the technology against the activists.
One of the most ominous signs is in Iran, where the brutish government seemingly wants to cut itself off from the world. This could be the response of many autocratic states aiming to hold onto power, no matter what. It must be resisted:
Iran is taking steps toward an aggressive new form of censorship: a so-called national Internet that could, in effect, disconnect Iranian cyberspace from the rest of the world.
The leadership in Iran sees the project as a way to end the fight for control of the Internet, according to observers of Iranian policy inside and outside the country. Iran, already among the most sophisticated nations in online censoring, also promotes its national Internet as a cost-saving measure for consumers and as a way to uphold Islamic moral codes.
In February, as pro-democracy protests spread rapidly across the Middle East and North Africa, Reza Bagheri Asl, director of the telecommunication ministry’s research institute, told an Iranian news agency that soon 60% of the nation’s homes and businesses would be on the new, internal network. Within two years it would extend to the entire country, he said.
The unusual initiative appears part of a broader effort to confront what the regime now considers a major threat: an online invasion of Western ideas, culture and influence, primarily originating from the U.S. In recent speeches, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other top officials have called this emerging conflict the “soft war.”
On Friday, new reports emerged in the local press that Iran also intends to roll out its own computer operating system in coming months to replace Microsoft Corp.’s Windows. The development, which couldn’t be independently confirmed, was attributed to Reza Taghipour, Iran’s communication minister.
Iran’s national Internet will be “a genuinely halal network, aimed at Muslims on an ethical and moral level,” Ali Aghamohammadi, Iran’s head of economic affairs, said recently according to a state-run news service. Halal means compliant with Islamic law.