Rights advocates are expressing concern about Iranian plans to create a cybercrimes division to investigate illegal activity on the Internet, over fears that authorities will use the unit to target the opposition and political activists.
Iranian authorities say they are aware of over 100,000 incidents of cybercrimes in 2008 — including theft, fraud, forgery and libel — and that the number is on the rise.
But rights advocates worry that the unit’s real purpose is to quell political discourse and enhance an ongoing crackdown on the opposition, which relies heavily on Internet-based tools for communication. After Iran’s controversial June presidential election, Twitter became a favored mode of communication among protesters, to communicate both amongst themselves and with their supporters worldwide.
Authorities have vowed to pursue those guilty of spreading “defamation and mischief” via online forums — charges that have previously been used to silence critics.
“The authorities’ aim seems to be to deter people from criticizing the government or circulating information — such as information on human rights violations — that they wish to suppress. Instead of permitting this, Iran’s judicial and security forces should end the mounting attack on Iran’s bloggers and online activists,” Malcolm Smart, director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program said in a press release.
The 12-member unit, officially called the “Control Center for Internet Activities,” will reportedly be part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and report directly to Iran’s chief prosecutor.
Iran has long been considered one of the worst countries for media and Internet freedom. Reporters Without Borders ranks Iran as one of the world’s biggest Internet “black holes” due to pervasive censorship, and the country placed in the bottom five of the group’s most recent annual Press Freedom Index.
The use of technology to curtail individual rights has emerged in recent years as a hot-button issue for rights activists. Internet Communications & Technology companies have been repeatedly dragged into the fray over allegations of self-censorship of their products, provision of advanced tracking and identification technology to governments, and, in some cases, actively providing governments with evidence that leads to prosecution. Siemens and Nokia faced a consumer boycott earlier this year after reports that the companies sold Iran equipment to monitor Internet and e-mail communications.