CGCS Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Emad Khazraee discusses the Fatwa against mobile broadband expansion in Iran.
Internet-based communication systems have made it much easier for people to connect. According to the 2014 International Telecoms Union (ITU) World Report, there are almost seven billion mobile-cellular subscriptions worldwide, and mobile-broadband penetration will reach 32% by the end of 2014. Smartphones paved a mobile path to the internet, thereby making internet use more accessible. Smartphones also reduced the learning curve for people’s use of data and internet-based communication apps such as audio, video, and messaging apps. Consequently, users are empowered to circulate peer-produced content and create a new, less regulated media market to compete with the state-controlled and regulated media market. In light of this context, we can better understand recent controversies and tensions about plans to expand mobile internet communication networks in Iran.
In an unprecedented event, on August 25, 2014, Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, a Shiite Marja’, announced in a Fatwa (ruling) that expansion of 3G/4G mobile-broadband networks, without necessary preconditions, is against the religious and ethical principles of Islam. This represents one of the rare cases in the Shiite Fiqh history that a Marja’ became involved in the highly technical details of communication technology. Shortly after a strong reaction from the public and some authorities, Ayatollah Maakarem retreated and announced that his Fatwa was misinterpreted; he is not against the use of new technologies, but he believes that “contaminated western technology” needs purification. He added that, in the absence of strong surveillance and content filtering, these technologies will be an ethical threat to the well-being of society. To better understand the nature of the tension around the development of the ICT infrastructure and, in particular, mobile-broadband in Iran, we need to scrutinize the circumstances under which the aforementioned fatwa was announced.
It is a common practice in Shiite fiqh to ask for a ruling from a Marja’ regarding new cases which are not formerly addressed by religious law. After Iran’s moderate president Hasan Rouhani announced plans for the expansion of mobile-broadband networks, a conservative group called the Revolution Cyberspace Activists (RCA), an advocate for heavily regulated internet communications, requested a ruling from Ayatollah Makarem regarding the of expansion of 3G/4G mobile-brand networks. The RCA has close ties with the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC), which is a new centralized agency responsible for managing the country’s cyber policies (see more: the Iran Media Program report on the Supreme Council of Cyberspace).
This incident also revealed the strong tension between the Ministry of ICT and the SCC regarding internet regulation policies. This request for a fatwa appeared at the same time as a plethora of articles from conservative websites and news agencies about necessary preconditions for the development of mobile-broadband networks including the implementation of a national Intranet. The RCA, in their request for fatwa, provided an argument in support for a more restrictive policy for mobile-broadband expansion. They argued that expanding mobile internet access would allow easy access to unethical videos and images; facilitate the spread of rumors; support conspiracy against the state; weaken family bonds; and promote espionage against the state and its citizens by foreign states. The RCA then suggested that the remedy for these consequences would be to prepare the ground for the national intranet and a stronger content-filtering and surveillance system.
None of the “consequences” cited by the RCA, however, would be a direct result of expanding mobile-broadband. All of the content accessible through mobile devices is also available through fixed-broadband internet connections. At the same time, Rasol Jalili, a member of SCC, emphasized that the expansion of mobile-broadband and the convenience of smartphone use would put the internet in the hands of every citizen in Iran—a key concern of conservative groups. The RCA’s argument added that encrypted connections would make it almost impossible to control the circulation of information and media content. They argued that mobile-broadband expansion is against Iran’s constitution, as it would violate the state monopoly over television and radio (broadcasting). It would also undermine state television, because users would be able to generate media content and circulate it in their networks easily. The RCA did not discuss, however, that such content production is already possible even without mobile-broadband and smartphones. The primary concern of conservative groups is, consequently, the level of internet penetration and level of public access to less regulated media.
In their argument, conservatives cited the disastrous experiences of other countries where smartphones are used, but it was not clear to which countries’ experiences they were referring. The conservatives suggested remedies to reduce the hazards of mobile broadband expansion, such as increasing state-regulated content production and implementing the national intranet (Halal internet). They suggest that the government should support regulated content production (native and Islamic content) to compete with the non-regulated media on the “American” internet. Conservatives also encouraged the government to force mobile carriers to contribute some of their profits for the creation of state-regulated content for web. It seems that the RCA does not have an accurate understanding of the scale of user-generated content on the internet. This mindset still focuses on one-way communication and media production, while peer production is an important aspect of the Web 2.0 era.
It is clear that the shifts in the Iranian political landscape after the recent election of Hasan Rouhani created increased tensions around the development of ICTs. After losing control of the government, the conservatives attempted to seek ground among religious authorities in order to legitimize the retention of state monopoly over information communication and more restrictive internet policies. It seems conservatives are attempting to extend the Weberian notion of state as “the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (Weber, 1958, p. 78) to the information environment of Iran. They are, however, not aware of the innate differences of physical and digital territories. It appears that the use of religious authority to claim legitimate use of force to restrict citizens’ right to access to information will not be a successful strategy in the long-term.
Emad Khazraee is a Post-Doctoral research fellow at the Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. in Information Studies form College of Computing and Informatics, Drexel University. His research is formed around the interplay between social and technical phenomena, and his doctoral research focuses on knowledge production processes in data-intensive, collaborative and multidisciplinary communities of practice.
In another research trajectory, he is looking at the cultural differences in new media use and the relationship between social change and repressive cultural environments. Relying on socio-technical approaches to social media studies and conceptual frameworks developed in Science Technology Studies (STS), he is exploring the role of Social Networking Sites (SNS) in the creation of virtual public spaces.
Emad also received his Master’s Degree in Architecture from the University of Tehran. In addition to practicing as an architect in Iran, he worked in the preservation of historical monuments and sites before joining the Encyclopaedia of Iranian Architectural History (EIAH) in 2006, where he was the director of the ICT Department (2006-2009), with the goal of creating infrastructure for meaningful integration of information technology into cultural heritage practices.
Weber, M. (1958). From Max Weber : essays in sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.
 Wikipedia entry for Naser Makarem Shirazi: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naser_Makarem_Shirazi
 This is called “istefta” which means asking for a fatwa.
 New permits were to be given to more carriers to provide mobile-broadband services.
 This corroborates the findings a recent survey conducted by CGCS about political attitudes in Iran that the use of less regulated media is related with lower satisfaction with the country’s condition.
 One of the goals clearly mentioned for the national intranet is achieving a stronger filtering system. This goal is achieved through creating a three tier list of websites: blacklist (completely filtered, no access); whitelist (freely available); greylist, websites considered not harmful but not useful according to the regulation. Users can only access greylist sites through low speed connections and higher costs for data traffic. This provides some evidence internet throttling and increasing data traffic cost is conceived as a good restrictive strategy in Iran to limit the use of less regulated media such as internet.