Most cell phone users take mobile Internet services for granted. But Iran had to overcome the objections of hardliners before issuing the first 3G and 4G licenses for its mobile operators last week—an action that has finally empowered ordinary Iranians to swiftly upload images to Twitter and make video calls on their phones.
The lifting of restrictions that had long throttled mobile Internet speeds in Iran came as a victory for Hassan Rouhani, Iran's president, over the country's conservative clerics, military leaders, and lawmakers, according to the New York Times. This comes on the heels of earlier government reforms that allowed Internet providers to boost bandwidth for home connections to as high as 10 megabits per second.
But Iran's hard-liners remain wary of unleashing high-speed mobile Internet upon their country—especially after Green Movement protesters used their phones to share photos and video clips on social media in the wake of Iran's 2009 presidential election. That incident prompted the government to throttle Internet speeds and crack down on popular websites such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr.
One sharp reaction to the easing of restrictions on 3G and 4G came from Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, a prominent cleric. He decried high-speed mobile Internet services as "immoral" and against Islamic law, according to the Washington Post.
Makarem-Shirazi does not object to the technology itself as much as its potential to open the proverbial floodgates to online content that he and other Iranian conservatives find either morally distasteful or politically dangerous. As the Washington Post points out, their concerns include the fear that 3G technology could allow men and women to talk directly to one another without supervision.
"Western technology is like muddy and unsanitary water," Makarem-Shirazi told the Tehran Times. "Water is the lifeblood, but when it gets murky and unsanitary it must be purified
Rouhani has pushed back hard against both Iran's restrictions on high-speed Internet access and its ongoing censorship of certain online content. The Iranian president made a speech on Iranian TV that described open Internet access as being crucial for Iranian science and for Iran's youths, according to BBC News.
"We cannot close the gates of the world to our younger generation," Rouhani said. "If we do not move towards the new generation of mobile today and resist it, we will have to do it tomorrow. If not, the day after tomorrow."
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.