After 6 Years in Jail, the Iranian ‘Blogfather’ Says Today's Internet Has Changed—for the Worse

From Hosseing Derakhshan's Flickr page. Some rights reserved.

A newspaper article featuring Derakhshan from 2007. From Hossein Derakhshan’s Flickr page. Some rights reserved.

ave you ever heard the saying “living under a rock”? Probably as a sarcastic context, but imagine taking this perspective, multiplied by six years, to criticize the state of the Internet today. That's exactly what Iranian-Canadian journalist and blogger Hossein Derakhshan did this past week with his Medium Matter essay entitled “The Web We Have to Save: The rich, diverse, free web that I loved – and spent years in an Iranian jail for – is dying.”

Derakhshan, a former Global Voices writer, was incarcerated from November 2008 until this past November for his blogging. He is known for being Iran's “blogfather”. The blogging revolution that overtook Iran in the early 2000s is often mentioned with some reference to Derakhshan. In his first English-language piece since his release from prison, Derakhshan's essay delves into how the Internet has transformed since his days as one of the Iranian Web's most widely followed writers. The main crux of the essay tackles issues that many Internet activists such as Global Voices co-founder Rebecca McKinnon, Global Voices board representative Jillian York, and Zeynep Tufecki have been criticizing for years — that is the loss of power to Internet corporations like Facebook, Twitter and Google.

Derakhshan's main metaphor to convey this message is television, describing our current Internet structure as “television-internet”.

But the Stream, mobile applications, and moving images: They all show a departure from a books-internet toward a television-internet. We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication — nodes and networks and links — toward a linear one, with centralization and hierarchies. The web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking. When I log on to Facebook, my personal television starts.

The dominance of social media and their associated corporate control structures are defined by Derakhshan as the main threat to online freedoms, despite the heavy price he has had to pay for his right to freely express himself online by the Iranian government. While he does not criticize Iranian policy, Derakhshan does point out a country such as Iran's helplessness in this new “television-internet” order.

Being watched is something we all eventually have to get used to and live with and, sadly, it has nothing to do with the country of our residence. Ironically enough, states that cooperate with Facebook and Twitter know much more about their citizens than those, like Iran, where the state has a tight grip on the Internet but does not have legal access to social media companies.

The piece underlines leading concerns that define our current Internet age, already discussed by numerous analysts and researchers. What Derakhshan does that makes his essay stand out is relating these debates to his own unique experiences, from his persecution for his online activities to his defining position within the evolution in the Iranian web sphere.

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