Iranians work in an internet cafe in central Tehran, Iran, in 2011. The chief difference between 2009 and the protests that rocked the country in 2018 was the proliferation of smartphones. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: Guns drawn, Iranian intelligence agents rushed into the apartment of a Washington Post reporter and his journalist wife in Tehran in July 2014.

Threatening to kill Jason Rezaian in front of his wife, Yeganeh, the 20 agents in the raid tore through their belongings and rifled through drawers, clothes and valuables for an hour.

But perhaps their most eagerly sought target wasn’t exactly inside the house: They forced the couple to hand over the passwords to their email and social media profiles.

That raid demonstrated how much of a threat Iran’s theocratic government sees in the internet. It has long sought to strictly control cyberspace and social media — and, thereby, the flow of information to the public.

But the Islamic Republic’s relationship with the world wide web is far more complicated than simple repression. Over the past four years, authorities have encouraged wider use of the internet among Iranians, hoping to generate the benefits of a more modern economy. As a result, nearly half the population have in their pockets a tool that the state is struggling to constrain: Smartphones, with cameras and internet links that let anyone broadcast to the world.

Those smartphones helped spread the startling burst of protests across Iran that opened 2018. The government succeeded in suffocating the flare-up in part by shutting off key social media and messaging apps, but the lesson was clear: The same oxygen that can resuscitate commerce can also give breath to potential revolt.

Authorities’ solution has been to create a so-called ‘halal net’, Iran’s own locally controlled version of the internet aimed at restricting what the public can see.

As Iran approaches the 40th anniversary of the revolution that brought its cleric-led rule to power, how it handles the power of cyberspace will be crucial to its future, determining whether it moves to greater openness or seals itself off from the world.

“The Islamic Republic is not black and white. It shows a myriad of contradictions and its internet policy I think is one of the great examples of those contradictions,” said Sanam Vakil, an associate fellow at Chatham House who studies Iran. “The government has taken the internet and effectively used it for its own purposes and also has realized the dangers of it as well.”

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, how information spreads across mass media has been tightly controlled.

All television and radio broadcasts within Iran are from state-run stations. Satellite dishes remain ostensibly illegal, though they are plentiful, drawing occasional attacks from bat-wielding government enforcers. Journalists face restrictions in what they can cover and where they can travel across a country of 80 million people that’s nearly two-and-a-half times the size of Texas.

The internet helped collapse that distance. During Iran’s 2009 protests surrounding the disputed re-election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, still nascent social media spread word of the events among Iranians and brought videos of the shooting death of 26-year-old Neda Agha Soltan to the world.

Iran’s government, overseen by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, violently suppressed the demonstrations. The crackdown killed dozens and saw thousands imprisoned, with some tortured by their jailers.

Even before the 2009 protests, Iran blocked access to YouTube. Twitter and Facebook followed amid the unrest, as did many other sites later. Some in Iran began using virtual private networks, or VPNs, which allow users to bypass government censorship.

The chief difference between then and the protests that rocked the country coming into 2018 was the massive proliferation of smartphones. As recently as 2014, only an estimated two million Iranians possessed one. Today, estimates suggest Iranians own 48 million.

That explosive growth was spurred by the administration of President Hasan Rouhani, a cleric who is a relative moderate within Iran’s system. His officials allowed more mobile phone service providers to offer 3G and 4G internet, suddenly making sharing photos and images possible. Home internet connections became faster. The encrypted messaging platform Telegram spread like wildfire. Over 40 million Iranians are estimated to use it, for everything from benign conversations to commerce and political campaigning.

In the recent unrest, protesters used Telegram’s mass-messaging channels to share information and videos across 75 cities and towns where demonstrations erupted. Some showed people openly in the streets shouting, “Death to Khamenei!” It shocked many, especially as such cries could bring a death sentence.

When the government temporarily blocked Telegram as well as Instagram, it helped smother the protests within days. Notably, however, Telegram’s silencing quickly brought complaints from businesspeople who use its channels to promote and sell their goods.

Even after the unrest, Rouhani argued it was futile trying to shut off an indispensable tool of modern life.

“If you want cyberspace to be useful to the community, come forward with a solution using it to promote the culture instead of blocking it,” he said, noting that past Iranian government tried to stop people from listening to the radio “but this prevention was useless”.

The idea of Iran setting up its own ‘halal’, or ‘permissible’, internet first came in 2011 in the wake of the 2009 protests. It’s evolved into what’s known as the National Information Network.

It is essentially a net neutrality supporter’s nightmare: The network has some 500 government-approved national websites that stream content far faster than those based abroad, which are intentionally slowed, according to a recent report by the Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Service providers offer cheaper packages to customers accessing only the NIN websites. Search results also are gamed within the network, allowing the government to censor what users find.

One of the principal designers of the network is the Iran Telecommunications, owned by proxies of the Guard.

It resembles in a way China’s ‘Great Firewall’, which blocks access to thousands of websites, from Facebook to Twitter to some news outlets. Chinese internet users also find access to websites outside of the country slower.

“Iran’s National Information Network may lack the name cachet of the ‘Great Firewall,’ but its performance in strangling access to opposition content during the most recent protests proved that Iran is hard on China’s heels in terms of controlling the flow of information,” the private U.S. intelligence firm Stratfor wrote in a January 17 analysis.