A month before Nowruz in 1989, my father and my older brother drove to Baaneh, a Kurdish town on the border of Iran and Iraq, to buy a VHS Player –one of the illicit and trafficked goods, imported from Iraq and Turkey.
At that time, owning a VHS Player was against the law in Iran. After the Islamic revolution, the revolutionary guards had permission to stop any car and search for guns, alcoholic beverages, pop music cassette tapes, game cards, or VHS tapes. Drinking alcohol, along with listening to pop music (western or pre-revolutionary Iranian), or watching musical or romantic movies with kissing scenes were all strictly illegal during the first decade after the Islamic revolution. If you were caught, you could end up in jail, pay a huge fine, or even lose your job because you would be blacklisted.
But by that time, almost every middle-class family owned a VHS Player. It was cheaper on the border towns. The ones sold in the cities were overpriced, since they had already passed through several checkpoints manned by the revolutionary guards to get to the cities.
In the black market of Baaneh, my father and brother asked for a VHS vendor. They were guided through narrow and dim hallways, passing under staring eyes and suspicious gazes, and finally, after haggling their way to a fair price, they bought a second-hand con gray metallic-cased VHS Player. My father pushed the device under the front passenger seat, and my brother stuffed its front with a long seat cover. My father had been tempted to buy some Turkish beer too, but then decided that getting caught for one illegal object at a time was a better strategy.
When they got into the city, the guards stopped the car, and asked my father for his driving license. “I couldn’t breathe out of fear. I started sweating and was sure that the guards would definitely search inside the car if one of them saw my sweaty forehead,” my brother remembers.
But luckily, the guards didn’t search the car and they brought the device home. After that, our house was like a picnic rest stop for our family gatherings during the weekends: aunts and uncles with their children and their guests would come over to watch a pre-revolution movie, a musical, or some video clips recorded in Los Angeles from the songs of exiled Iranian singers. Every weekend, one family was in charge of curating the gathering’s movie or show.
Then in 1997, Mohammad Khatami was elected president. He revised those post-revolutionary rules and toned some of them down. CD Players and other music and movie playing devices began to sell in public markets. However, carrying or playing cards, records of dance music, and pre-revolutionary films in public were, and still are, illegal in Iran. But the revolutionary guards have been replaced by Islamic Morality Police: The members of the new branch of revolutionary committee do not set up roadblocks on intersections to stop each car. They patrol the streets, and if they see something suspicious and against Islamic laws (such as a young girl and a young boy laughing or holding hands in public), they may search a car or stop the passengers.
With digital technology (CDs and DVDs being everywhere) came Hollywood movies and American TV series to be circulated among families, especially among the youth. Each neighborhood had its own local “dealer,” usually a man with a cellphone and a carry-on bag, who would bring CDs and DVDs of European and American films and TV shows to your doorstep. But you had to know someone he knew, so he could be sure that you were not an undercover agent. Their movies covered a wide artistic spectrum: from Oscar and Cannes winners, to action, musical, drama, and even porn. The quality of the most recent bootlegs was usually low, since they were mostly recorded by a camcorder in a movie theater in America. I have watched many American movies this way: Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, The Matrix, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago (the musical), and TV series such as Friends, Lost, and Frasier.
Beginning in late 1990s, satellite technology took over. If you fly close to the ground over any city in today’s Iran, you see at least one satellite dish on almost every roof. The Islamic morality police has since refocused its agenda on fighting the ownership of satellites by citizens. At first, the most popular stations were free-to-air dance, music, and movie channels. But later, the younger generations learned to use it as a source of news. Through the Persian BBC channel, CNN, and so many other news channels, Iranians were able to follow news outside of what the state-owned Iranian media would want them to know.
Iranian government considers itself a “techno-democratic” governing system. So the government embraces new technologies, and that’s how the infrastructures for Internet and later, for optic fiber cable network were built in Iran.
The World Wide Web (WWW) changed the shape of information for Iranians. It was the easiest way to sidestep Iran’s strict press laws and state-controlled media to read the news. And when blogging was born, Iranians became serious bloggers too; spreading thoughts and ideas on social and political matters of the country faster and at no cost. That was when the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, realized that the mind-controlling the masses was not possible anymore.
In 2001, the Supreme Leader issued a “general policy statement for telecommunication.” The President and Iran’s telecommunication company refused to follow the new statement at first, but the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, a conservative organization whose decisions can only be overruled by the Supreme Leader, forced internet filtering and censorship rules, followed by the arrests of popular bloggers across the country.
I moved to the U.S. in 2007. The first thing that fascinated me was how quickly I could load web pages. For example, YouTube clips could be loaded in a blink. I didn’t need to use any “anti-filtering” software to access Twitter, Facebook, BBC, and even some Iranian news websites anymore. In Iran, I had to install “anti-filtering” software to be able to log into my Facebook account and change my profile picture. Uploading a picture to Facebook could take 20 to 40 minutes every time.
A month ago, I got an email from an American friend, “This is an emergency: President’s new Chairman of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to dismantle Net Neutrality.” Apparently, the Chairman had called the historic Open Internet rules “a mistake” and he claimed that his agency was on track to roll them back. Then “Senator Ted Cruz assured him at a hearing that if he undoes Net Neutrality, Cruz and his fellow senators will back him up.” Net Neutrality means that the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must treat all web traffic equally, so companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T cannot control what the users can see and say online.
If Net Neutrality disappears (1), whichever company pays a higher price can have more internet bandwidth. So personal websites, independent and non-profit organizations are in danger of losing their bandwidth, and their viewers. Think about it for a minute: doesn’t it mean that big companies can act like the gatekeepers of the information you receive?
Then, about two weeks ago, Republicans in Congress voted to reverse a landmark FCC privacy rule, meaning ISPs are now allowed to sell their customer data (people’s web browsing history and app activities) without permission (2) to whoever pays a higher price for such information.
Imagine every time you open a web browser, you remember that whatever you see, read, or type, could be used against you in the future because who knows who would buy your data from your ISP. Wouldn’t you be extra cautious in web surfing? Doesn’t it mean that you have to self-censor in order to protect yourself? Doesn’t it look like the story of internet filtering?
One of the reasons I left Iran was the heavy shadow of censorship that clouded the daily lives of citizens. It is just sad that in my new home, I may suffer from the same cause again. The peak of Internet censorship in Iran occurred at the time of the Green Movement in 2009. Despite the regime’s attempts to impose more restrictive filtering, the protesters tweeted, blogged, and reported the recorded scenes to international news websites, so that the world could see what was really happening on the streets of Iran.
It is disappointing to see that unlike Iranian citizens who try so hard to move toward accessing free information which leads to more freedom and moderation, Americans seem to move away from it. How many people do you know in your community who talk about the threat of losing net neutrality or their data being sold to ISPs? How much coverage did these threats receive on mainstream media?
In 2017, eighteen years after my father and my brother drove to Baaneh to buy an illegal VHS Player, after all the years of struggle to access news channels, blogs, and filtered websites in Iran, I sense the threat of dictatorship once again in America; in a different shape, with different purposes.
1. Read about five freedoms you will lose without Net Neutrality here.
2. Read about Congress’s decision on selling the customer data here.