Iran has made the biggest move to regulate the internet of any country today by announcing plans to shut it down entirely in their country and replace it with a highly regulated intranet. History has shown us that similar regulation attempts have failed and I believe this one will as well. It won’t work because the development of new media and the drop in technology costs will create a way to get information that can’t be censored. At the same time, businesses won’t be able to compete globally which will limit them to only do business in their local market, the standard of living increases will be slowed, and that will create a strong dissatisfaction with their system. That dissatisfaction will slowly cause people to circumvent censorship or try to change it over time.
The Berlin Wall Already Fell
The mechanisms that caused the communist economic system to fall and the Berlin Wall to go with it will also fight against the regulation in Iran. Some of the most extreme examples of government regulation has been prevelent in communist regimes such as the Soviet Union in Russia during the Cold War. Thomas Friedman explains in his very informative book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, how and why the world moved from the Cold War economic system to the globalized one we have today. Two of the Three mechanisms that lead to its collapse that are relevent here are the changes in power and the changes in information sharing.
Two Mechanisms Erode Iran’s Regulation
In short, much of the power that used to only reside in the top arena of government has been shifted to wealthy individuals, the financial investors around the world and even the common individual. The shift in power goes hand in hand with the drop of cost, and increase in accessibility to tools that can share information internationally.
One: Technology & Information
To begin with, the drop in technology cost has enabled poor people to put a pizza sized TV dish on their porch and pick up signals from around the world in a way the government can’t possibly regulate; they can’t restrict the airwaves. They can patrol for the dishes in people’s homes, but those can be easily hid in the closest when necessary. Additionally, the cost to produce and distribute those TV shows has dropped tremendously as well.
I have a friend who has set up a recording studio in his house in an American suberb and regularly broadcasts professional grade TV shows to the Middle East. Shows that used to be restricted by the government. Iran can aim to replace the internet with a much more regulated version but there are many other channels to get unregulated information freely.
The trends in mobile technology getting smaller and cheaper, GPS technology getting cheaper and more accurate, internet bandwidth doubling in shorter periods, and the cost of transmitting and recieving information over the airwaves dropping will all make Iran’s regulations more and more ineffective. Soon, devices small enough to fit in your pocket will be powerful to watch TV shows the government can’t regulate and cheap enough for even the realtively poor to afford.
Two: Power Shifts
Secondly, power has shifted to allow individuals to be able to decide whether or not they want to abide by the regulations the government sets out because they now have the ability to organize themselves. Historically, the only way to communicate to the masses was through mass media such as TV or radio. The government can control these much easier than they can control social media. To some it may be surprizing that social media worries the Iranian government, but its ability to allow the people to easily communicate and organize in mass means that they could potentially organize against the government. Events like the Arab Spring make this threat a real one.
Iran will try to limit individuals’ entertainment, anti-state news, and social networking channels to name a few categories because anything projecting something that might undermine the rule of the current government is considered a threat. However, as mentioned, the drop in technology cost and increasing ease of communcation today, will make it easier and easier to avoid restrictions such as these.
Businesses and Standard of Living Crippled
Friedman effectively argues that the only way for a business or government to grow economically is to fully embrace free-market capitalism. Putting up walls around Iran will slow and possibly reverse any economic growth. Iranian businesses will not be able to compete in the international market place which would limit the amount of outside capital flowing into the country. They won’t be able to compete because the spread of ideas, solutions, technologies made outside the country, best practices, and education will spread around the world to their competitors but not to them.
That would affect the standard of living for everyone in the country. Historically, governments such as the Soviet Union were able to control the information flowing to their people, downplay how good life is elsewhere, and point to how much their specific country has improved in recent years. The government can’t effectively do this anymore because people can see when something isn’t true. Broadcast media and governments are not the only producers and distributers of information anymore.
This knowledge that the rest of the globalized world is improving their living conditions at a much faster pace than Iran will create a strong dissatisfaction within the country over time. This dissatisfaction could manifest itself in the big, important things, down to even the smallest things. Friedman tells a story when he was in Syria and his guide was dissatisfied with life there because he could see that Israel had it so much better in their country. The guide would watch IsraelTV and the commercials would show yogurt in all kinds of flavours and colors and the Corn Flakes that crunched even after you put the milk in. In Syria, they had 1 yogurt flavour in 1 color, and their Corn Flakes immediately turned to mush when they added milk. The fact that Syria was so far behind even in regards to these very small things created a very strong dissastifaction with the way things were in their country.
Other Countries Around the World
Other countries around the world are struggling with the same issues. Chinna is targeting micro-blogs producing anti-state content. Korea is limiting which websites are available to their citizens. I’m currently in Vietnam and I’m censored from accessing Facebook. Many of these countries have begun to open up their countries economically because they have been forced to by some degree or another because the economic incentive to do so is to great to ignore. However, they are only partially embracing the new system and they will continue to struggle as long as their restrictive ideologies exist.
Iranians can Learn From Indonesians
When Suharto was leading Indonesia, the country was purposefully cut-off from the rest of the world with regulations. The people were in favor of an open, connected country but were not willing to lead a public revoltion to help enact that change. The strategy the people took involved doing everything they could to incorporate Western multinationals into the country because with them would come their standards, polocies, transparency, connectedness, and openess.
Most governments can’t resist the attractiveness of foreign direct investment and investment from the financial stock exchanges around the world. To attract that inflow of capital to the country, it must prove to be stable, open, and transparent.
Iranians don’t want to publicaly protest either, but that doesn’t make them powerless. They too can support Western influence that will make it in the Iranian governments’ best interest to let them in. As it did in Indonesia, Iran would then take two steps forward and one back towards becoming a global economy bettering the lives of their people.
Where do we go From Here
Iran as well as many other developing countries don’t respect Western countries in many ways, but they surely do respect and admire their wealth, comforts, and overall standard of living. The world consumes American movies, TV shows, music and the countries not taking strides to bring more of what they see in the media to their people will slowly create dissatisfaction with their system. The internet certantly speeds up international sharing tremendously, but it is far from the only channel to share information through.
The tension between Iran and the rest of the world will continue to grow for the Iranian people as globalization increases. Some Iranians will circumvent the internet regulation as it becomes easier and easier to do so, some will passively support Westernization and let the markets apply their own pressures, and some will strongly oppose both of these things. Still, it is important to point out that Iranians don’t have to agree with the Western religions, culture, or other ideologies, to support these changes because everyone wants a better standard of living. Self-interest is always the best motivation.
What do you think of all this? What do you think will happen in Iran’s future? Are there any holes in my argument?
Listen to me speak on 7 Social Media Trends on November 27th in San Diego.