The Age of Surgical Censorship

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Iran's "smart" approach involves monitoring, rather than blocking, its citizens' use of social media.

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Customers use computers at an Internet cafe in Tehran on May 9, 2011. (Reuters)

Iran, to put it mildly, has a tense relationship with the Internet -- some evidence of the acrimony being the many attempts the country has made to curtail its citizens' use of social media. In May, its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa against anti-filtering tools that have helped citizens to access blocked material on the Internet. Last month, Iran launched Mehr, its own version of YouTube, which allows users to upload and view content they create, and to watch videos from IRIB, Iran's national broadcaster. The country has also reportedly been building a government-run network -- a national intranet -- that would operate "largely isolated" from the rest of the World Wide Web. Citing intensified online crackdowns, increased digital surveillance of citizens, and the imprisonment of web activists, Reporters Without Borders named Iran to its 2012 "Enemies of the Internet" list.

But "enemy" can be a murky term -- one complicated by the fact that, given the multitude of workarounds that allow its citizens to access the Internet (some of them helped along by the U.S. government), Iran has been fighting a largely losing battle as far as wholesale censorship is concerned. So the country, in a move that represents equal parts concession and repression, is reportedly taking another tack: According to the AFP, the country is developing "intelligent software" that aims to manipulate, rather than fully control, citizens' access to social networks. Instead of blocking Facebook, or Twitter, or even Google ... the regime, per the report, will allow controlled access to those services. As Iranian police chief Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam put it to Iranian local media, cheerfully: "Smart control of social networks will not only avoid their disadvantages, but will also allow people to benefit from their useful aspects." 

This, of course, is not so much enlightened despotism for the Internet age as it is despotism as it's looked in every age. As Evgeny Morozov argued last year in the Wall Street Journal, following up on his book The Net Delusion, savvy dictators don't simply quash the Internet; rather, they find ways to control the Internet. They allow allow their subjects access to the tools afforded by connection, but then use that access to monitor (and, thus, manipulate) their behavior. So, sure, the restriction of access to social networks is one way to maintain that control, and the creation of new and nationalized social networks -- as attempted by Vietnam and Russia and Uzbekistan, among other regimes -- is another. But another way -- a smarter way, if a more technologically challenging way -- is simply to repress from within: to give citizens access to the open web, and then control their experience of that web. To invest, in other words, in illusory openness. In surgical censorship.

Granted, "intelligent software," as a technology and as a political strategy, doesn't mean that much; all software is (theoretically) intelligent. While there's a good chance that the system in question would use automated filtering to identify and block controversial content -- and that it would rely for its workings on a "dual stack" approach to IP addressing -- it's unclear from existing reports how, exactly, the software would work. And it's worth remembering that the Iranian government has a mixed track record when it comes to the effectiveness of its own attempts at censorship; recall the episode in October when the country, trying to block YouTube, also inadvertently shut down Gmail. And the irony that, due to the regime's apparent reliance on unsophisticated keyword filtration, the fatwa the Ayatollah issued against anti-filtration technologies ended up being censored by the government's own filters. 

Still, though, the "intelligent software" announcement is itself revealing: It suggests the increasing normalization of censorship -- and, more specifically, the increasing normalization of strategic censorship. This is the highly effective Chinese model put to use by another regime: Block content if you must, but monitor content first of all. Allow your citizens to indict themselves with the freedom -- "freedom" -- you give them. And that is, as a strategy, very likely the future of repression -- one in which access to the web won't just be the black-and-white matter of blocked vs. not , but rather something more insidious: curtailing Internet freedom by the very illusion of granting it. As Iran's Moghadam noted, "Smart control of social networks is better than filtering them completely." What's scary is that he's probably right.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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