Iran may not be the safest place for journalists, but that hasn't prevented the growth of online expression there. There are now more than 100,000 Iranian bloggers, and Persian is by one count the blogosphere's third most common language. Outside observers see the thriving blogosphere as a catalyst for political change, but New Republic columnist Joseph Braude disagrees. He tells guest host Xeni Jardin why he thinks the Internet might actually serve to maintain the repressive status quo.
XENI JARDIN: Among the governments demanding an official apology from Denmark is Iran. Not terribly surprising. Over the years, Iran hasn't exactly been an oasis of independent journalism. But that hasn't stopped Iranians of all stripes from expressing themselves on the Web. About five million of them are now online, and more than a hundred thousand of them are blogging. Stanford researchers say that Persian is now the third most common language on the Internet. It's an encouraging sign to many in the West, who see Iran's thriving blogosphere as the catalyst for political change. But in this month's New Republic, Joseph Braude argues that the Internet might forestall democracy and actually serve to maintain the status quo. He joins me now to explain. Joseph, welcome to the show.
JOSEPH BRAUDE: Hi, Xeni.
XENI JARDIN: What are the demographics generally of Internet users? Who's online?
JOSEPH BRAUDE: These are urban elites. They tend to be middle-class and higher Iranians who have always had access to the latest technologies, whether it be satellite technology, which arrived en masse in Iran in the '80s and '90s, or, more recently, the Internet. I've seen the figure 700,000 Iranian bloggers globally. Persians outside Iran have encouraged and emboldened Internet users inside the country to challenge and push against the limits of free expression. The government, for its part, has accused Iranians from the outside of being involved with CIA efforts to destabilize the country, some perhaps justly and others surely unjustly.
XENI JARDIN: But there are Internet filters put in place by the government?
JOSEPH BRAUDE: That's absolutely right. In fact, in recent years, the Iranian government has reached out to an American company, Secure Computing, to put in Smart Filter. What is being filtered out is, first of all and foremost, dissident bloggers, especially in the Persian language, some religious content that is injurious to Shii Islam. They're also interested in filtering out pornographic content, and they've been very effective at doing that.
XENI JARDIN: While access to the Internet inside Iran has expanded, though, you say that public life has grown increasingly restrictive. So does access to the Internet then become a kind of a pressure valve for the average younger Iranian?
JOSEPH BRAUDE: The government, while eager to curtail expressions by Iranians that may threaten the status quo, they also are not objecting to the use of the Internet to learn more about the world, to experience a secular, wayward lifestyle, as long as it's not outwardly manifested. They can meet members of the opposite sex through Internet chat forums where it's even illegal to hold hands in public. They can download movies on the Internet that cannot legally be viewed in an Iranian cinema. So it's making some of the trappings of a free public domain available in the private sphere, and that's making life more livable and perhaps less different than life anywhere else.
XENI JARDIN: Now, I want to get to an interesting argument that you made in this piece. You said, if I understand you correctly, that people outside of Iran may look at the changes that are happening with Internet use and jump to mistaken conclusions, and that maybe some of this Internet openness actually has a negative consequence. Can you explain what you meant?
JOSEPH BRAUDE: Those who see the Internet uptake and assume it means revolution or it means radical change, it means there's no way things can stay the same in Iran with so many people online - that may be a leap in logic that I wouldn't be prepared to take. When there is a revolution in some authoritarian state, I have no doubt that the revolutionaries will use the blogosphere, because it is a mighty tool. But that doesn't mean that the presence of a blogosphere is going to bring about a revolution. On the contrary. Other aspects of Internet use are going to maintain public order by giving people valves to enjoy themselves in private.
XENI JARDIN: There's been a lot of news in recent weeks and a lot of debate about the roles and the practices that American media and Internet companies ought to follow when engaging in business in China. How is Iran's treatment of the Internet different than what is taking place in China?
JOSEPH BRAUDE: Actually, Iran and China are very similar in terms of the evolution of the government policy toward the Internet. In both countries, they began with the crude measure of a sweep of Internet cafes. A few years later, both countries have learned that the more subtle tactic of filtration enables the government to filter out much of the content that is harmful to them but the society to enjoy the content that is benign to the government.
XENI JARDIN: So in the past year, we've seen a number of bloggers imprisoned, but then we've also seen this very inspiring growth of online discourse. What do you imagine we'll see next?
JOSEPH BRAUDE: First of all, the Iranian government forecasts that four years from now there may be as many as 25 million people online. That's an enormous portion of a population, a country of about 69 million people to have the chance at the touch of a button to get in touch with Americans, Europeans, Israelis, for that matter, and many others. I think that the fact that so many of the Persian blogs also are done in English means that Americans can be reading this material, learning more about Iran from the perspective of young people in that country. In the long run, the blogosphere will have a lot to do with the way that the United States and Iran understand each other.
XENI JARDIN: Joseph, thank you very much for joining us.
JOSEPH BRAUDE: Hey, thank you.
XENI JARDIN: Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for its People, the Middle East and the World, and is a weekly columnist for The New Republic. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the new head of PBS prepares for action.