In a digital era, one of the unintended consequences of economic sanctions could be information sanctions. If the UN is to proceed with economic sanctions against Iran, there are good reasons to craft a policy that still permits communication across national borders.
In even the most authoritarian regimes, digital media can provide a space in which civic conversations can take place. Information sanctions would disproportionately effect civil society leaders, opposition political parties, and tech-savvy youth. Cutting off networks of communication might actually help regimes prevent information leaks and “whistle blowers” from embarrassing the regime. Recall that part of what enraged many Iranians last summer was the online publication of Interior Ministry memos about irregular ballot counting processes.
New information technologies are profoundly reshaping political culture. Twenty-first–century civil society relies upon the Internet and other communication devices for its infrastructure, and for a digital “safe harbor” in which civic conversations can incubate. This is especially true in countries where the national print and broadcast media are heavily censored. In short, technology has empowered new and vital means of political communication and acclimated citizens to democratic thought and action.
Here is what we do know about the role of digital media in contemporary Iranian politics:
- Iranians have increased international content in their news diets.
- Family and friends like to employ Twitter, Facebook, and Orkut networks in their communications, independent of direct state control.
- Civil society actors have flourished online — even when the state has cracked down domestically.
- Women are drawn into cyberspace discourse in ways not always available in “real” space.
Economic sanctions often have unfortunate consequences for the poorest citizens in a target regime. If we aren’t careful, sanctions might also have an impact on civil society groups and mainstream political parties. Just as last summer’s denial of service attacks against the Iranian government also affected civil society groups, economic sanctions could have the deleterious impact of weakening the country’s moderate voices.
In countries where political parties are illegal or restricted, digital networks are actually more important, because they provide the most independent infrastructure for political communication.