Two unrelated news stories coming out of Iran last week piqued my interest, revealing (once again!) inherent tensions in how authoritarian governments view the Internet.
As the prospect another wave of anti-government protests - scheduled for February 11 - looms large, it appears that the Iranian authorities decided not to take any risks with new models of Internet censorship. The cable cut in southern Iran has left roughly 30% of the country without access to the Internet.
According to Bloomberg News, Moussavi's camp immediately accused Iranian authorities of deliberately obstructing Internet activities of the opposition (ironically, they did it via the Internet - through Moussavi's web-site). This seems like a plausible explanation even to my skeptical eyes: while cutting cables may be more expensive than conventional Internet filtering, but it's certainly more effective (no proxy server can go around cut cables!).
But that's not all: the Guardian reports than an Iranian technology company - owned by the government - has launched the country's first online supermarket. The e-supermarket currently offers 2,500 grocery and household items at competitive prices and operates only in Tehran (also, it wouldn't work on Fridays, the Islamic day of rest). According to the Guardian, the site is launched by Rouyesh Technical Centre, a technology group linked to Jahad-e Daneshgahi, a quasi-state institution that has been heavily promoting a host of other technologies (including cloning) in Iran.
The launch of the online supermarket prompted an interesting reaction from The Next Web blog: "You can't tweet or poke but you can buy fresh tomatoes!" This, I think, does a good job at summarizing the authoritarian approach to the Internet: let users drown in online consumerism and Internet entertainment but prevent them from getting involved in any unsanctioned political activities. This new social contract seems to be working okay...
Well, at least Iranians would now enjoy one kind of "Internet freedom": the freedom to shop online. Such freedom may, of course, eventually lead to other demands that may indirectly benefit democratization - for example, there is a strong historical argument to be made that the rise of consumerism in 18th century has greatly abetted the process of democratization in both the United States and Western Europe - but I think it would probably take longer than we think and other factors (less conducive to democracy) may completely change the game in the meantime.
Evgeny Morozov, originally from Belarus, is a visiting scholar at Stanford and a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.