Iranian law enforcement officials swept down in Tehran last week, forcing the closure of more than 400 Internet cafes in the Iranian capital. In this conservative state, such an action would be thought to have been ordered by the religious authorities, which are typically concerned with the type of content filtering through to the Internet users.
But not this time. The fact was that some 1,200 cafés were left open, all connect at speeds of up to 64 Kbps. According to Pyramid Research the closures stem from a dispute between reformists and hardliners over the best way to make ISPs and Internet cafés sign on to a new government bandwidth provision initiative — a satellite to be operated jointly by the governments of China, India and Iran. With Iran’s presidential elections coming up, it is expected that broadband Internet cafés will reopen shortly after the June elections.
The police action appeared to have been instigated by the state telecommunications monopoly, which is seeing its market being eroded by Internet Service Providers in the private sector. In particular the monopoly is concerned about those Internet sites offering inexpensive telephone connections to relatives and friends living abroad.
Tehran is dotted with such Internet cafes, some of which operate a single computer. Over the past year they have become a favored meeting places for young people, and for many a place where it is possible to make cheap telephone calls.
Officially the authorities said their measures were merely corrective in nature. To stay in business, they stated, the owners of the Internet cafes would have to obtain special licenses from the Trade Union for Computer and Business-Machine Operators.
Indeed, according to the conservative Tehran Times, which is published by the Islamic Guidance and Communications Organization, the reports about the extent of the police action were exaggerated. Only 15 Internet cafes in three areas of Tehran were closed, a police spokesman stated, and their owners were called upon to obtain the necessary licenses. Five of them were later authorized to reopen after receiving approval from the union, while another 250 were warned they would need an operating permit as well as an Internet license.
Speaking to the Tehran Times, an official at the ministry of post, telephone and telegraph (PTT) hinted that the closure of the Internet cafes was meant to restrict the entry of undesirable materials into the public arena. In fact, intimated the Persian-language daily, Tehran Aftab-e Yazd, the PTT is opposed to the closure of Internet cafes. According to Qasem Ramezanpur-Nargesi, a legal advisor at the ministry, the closure of the Internet cafes was ordered by the residential affairs department of the Law-Enforcement Force. The ministry, Ramezanpur-Nargesi stated, has been negotiating with officials of the residential affairs department find solutions to the problem.
“We shall soon prepare the necessary scheme to license such premises. And afterwards these cafes will be able to continue their activities within the framework of the law,” Ramezanpur-Nargesi told Tehran Aftab-e Yazd.
Another spin was placed on the affair by Hambastegi, a pro-reform newspaper, which reported that more than 400 Internet cafes had been closed because they had no permits, even though no such permits have ever existed.
It is worth noting that, for several months already, the PTT has been coming under fire from about 100 privately-owned internet service providers (ISPs) for what the ISPs claim is unfair competition in order to preserve the Internet business as a state monopoly. Under the government's five-year plan, the PTT is committed to privatization, but to date little is being done to further that effort.
Indeed, according a recently formed association of private ISPs, the PTT is refusing to supply more telephone lines to private ISPs. Only a few ISPs have their own send-and-receive facilities, and, in the present climate, those that do are afraid that they will be shut down.
Clearly, the private ISPs are concerned that the closure of the Internet cafes is part of a government scheme to limit access through facilities offered by the state telecom, which clearly would have an interest in preventing the low-cost telephone services and also would be able to filter out “undesirable” Internet content.
In the meantime, the main public criticism has not addressed the economic aspect of the affair, but rather the threat to free speech. Such issues were raised in a letter of protest to the head of the Iranian judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroud, sent by the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders. – (MENA Report)
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