By Nathaniel Purtell
In January 2017, Iran’s domestic policy on the censorship of pornography affected the rest of the world. The Telecommunication Company of Iran, often called “telecom,” misdirected traffic from 256 porn sites to fake addresses resulting in a blank page, reports the Verge. This attack spread from the original telecom in Iran to servers in Hong Kong and all over the world. The incident brought the Islamic Republic’s strict ruling against obscene materials to the attention of the world over.
As a result of its restrictive media policies, and due to its state control of all telecommunications, Iran effectively damaged how the internet works. According to the Independent, in its attempt to censor local servers, Iran changed the “road signs” of the internet, pointing servers from all other the world away from their intended destinations. These intended destinations were a list of 256 websites that Iran deemed to be “pornographic.”
Iran’s policy on pornography is a result of the government’s Islamic foundation. In the Islamic Republic, the Ayatollah (or supreme religious leader) has vast influence on the moral direction of the country. The Islamic faith considers modesty to be of utmost importance, and the obscenity found in pornography is seen as a moral threat to the populace. This is a result of the Islamic revolution of the 1970’s, after which the Ayatollah became the supreme authority in the country.
Previously, the secular regime allowed all manners of outside influence into the nation. Women rarely covered their hair, and Western ideals about beauty and sexuality became mainstream in a society that was recently made rich for their oil reserves. While the country became significantly wealthier, the deeply religious conservatives in the country gained power and influence, including the return of the once-exiled Ayatollah, leading to more conservative policies.
According to the Washington Post, in 2013 two anonymous Iranian citizens teamed up with a computer science professor from the University of Michigan to test the extent of Iran’s censorship. They discovered that over half of the sites on Alexa’s top 500 most-visited websites were blocked. Additionally, a high percentage of sites in the “art,” “society,” and “news” categories were also blocked.
The country’s pervasive media censorship is made possible by its telecom setup. Nearly all internet traffic passes through a centralized facility in which censorship filters are applied. These filters are so stringent that, in an experiment carried out by the researchers, a file titled sex.htm was created and hosted outside of the U.S. to test the filter’s effectiveness. The file was censored solely because of its name.
Iran’s policies on pornography extend even beyond the web. Iran has a history of arresting pornographic actors, actresses and directors, reports the Guardian. The penalty of assisting in the production of pornography in Iran is death, leading to an intricate underground black market of pornography production and distribution. The demand for such a market is only heightened by the youthful population, says Dr Naser Fakouhi, the head of anthropology at Tehran University. With roughly 70 percent of the population under the age of 35, Iran is experiencing a youth bulge.
More controversial than its restrictions on pornography is Iran’s blocking of political content that it disagrees with, reports the Washington Post. The ability to sanction and block pornographic materials also sets the path for the government to block materials it sees as against its interest.
During the 2011 Arab Spring, most countries in the Maghreb blocked politically-motivated content that was used to organize democratic movements. In a time when the political environment has been thrown into disillusion through the use of internet media, questions are arising about the sustainability of the country’s restrictive nature.