A swing on the Iranian web

Observations on the internet

If you are unfortunate enough to be an Iranian swinger, you face a real challenge. It's hard to find like-minded parties behind the jellabas and chadors without the authorities knowing. "Psst! Fancy a shag?" is out of the question. A protracted path of hints, subterfuge and illicit meetings might eventually lead you to the populous Jacuzzi you seek. Or to a torture chamber.

The web saved you and others crazy enough to indulge themselves under a severely intolerant theocracy. And it was not just Iranian swingers' homepages and chatrooms; the web included bloggers describing the killing of dissidents and sites detailing high-level corruption: these were the revelations of a people oppressed by 24 years of clerical rule. Until recently, the web was the only uncensored medium in Iran: reformist newspapers have been closed down and leading journalists imprisoned. According to several NGOs, Iran has incarcerated more journalists than any other country.

The internet was madly popular. Despite an embargo preventing computer hardware from entering the country, Iranian authorities estimated the numbers of Iranians online was 400,000 in 2001, and this figure was expected to rise to 15 million over the next three years. Computers in Tehran's cybercafes were easily accessible and cheap, with broadband connections that were faster than those in most British homes. The web was even used by hard-line clerics to spread the word of the Prophet; many clerics had their own sites.

Those freedoms are now gone. In a paradoxical two-step, the reformist administration of President Mohammad Khatami has launched its own web initiative while at the same time cracking down on popular web use elsewhere. The National Information and Communication Technology Agenda (Nicta) is a comprehensive plan, with a $1bn budget, to put Iran's economy, government and infrastructure such as schools online.

But where Nicta represented a step forward, it was accompanied by a big step back. Soon after it was launched last year, the authorities began forcing Iranians offline. In June 2002, the powerful Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution in Tehran nationalised all internet service providers in one go and ordered them to remove "anti-Islamic" content from sites. More recently, it provided the government with a list of "illegal" sites, and a number of service providers were closed down. Earlier this month, the government blocked 15,000 "immoral" websites and a number of commentators such as the journalist Ghasem Sole Sa'di were arrested for posting criticism of the regime on a pro-reformist website.

In a matter of months, contact with the outside world via the web has been sharply reduced. There are reports of the judiciary being trained in web law to prepare for a further crackdown. It had been hoped by some that web use and e-government would be a Trojan horse-style vehicle to push for democracy in Iran.

British companies such eGov monitor, an e-government consultancy, are critical of the British government's failure to assist Iranian leaders who have asked for help in setting up e-government networks similar to those in Britain.

"The UK government has not clicked that technology is a superb way of ex-porting democracy and trade, without flattening a country," said a consultant from eGov monitor who did not wish to be named.

"In a fight between government and technology, the latter is going to win," says Babak Khakpour, an Iranian expert in e-government. "The government's sensible option is to embrace technology." One day, perhaps, Iranians will be able to swing without fear of persecution.