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Last Updated: Friday, 13 February, 2004, 17:00 GMT
Postcards from Iran: Surfing the net
In the run-up to parliamentary elections in Iran, Abbas Azimi, a writer from the BBC Persian Service, gives a snapshot of an aspect of contemporary life in the Islamic Republic.

Gulestan internet café is the kind of place you want to spend some time. Tucked into the corner of a busy market in west Tehran, it's tastefully decorated with plants and pictures of mountains and seascapes.

There have been signs that the Islamic government is waking up to the power of the net
The mullahs are becoming web wise
A waiter brings coffee and snacks to customers browsing the net in two small but cosy rooms. The café has six computers.

The brand names on the flat screen monitors are unfamiliar, because like most PCs in Iran, the Gulestan's PCs are locally assembled from parts smuggled in from Dubai. But there's nothing unfamiliar about the software - pirated versions of all the latest Western-produced programmes are available here.

At one terminal a teenage boy sits engrossed in an online conversation. Next to him, a woman wearing headphones is using the net to make a cut-price phone call to a friend abroad.

Cafes like Gulestan have sprung up all across the country. It's estimated that some seven million Iranians now have access to the internet. That's one in 10 people, and twice as many as two years ago. An hour online costs the equivalent of around 60 cents - which is well within the reach of the average person.

Backdoor to banned sites

In a country where the media is still strictly controlled, the internet offers a unique window on the world. It's a safe and easy way for young people to make new friends, to keep in touch with each other, and to find out what's going on both at home and abroad.

The internet offers a unique window on the world in a country where media is strictly controlled
An estimated seven million people have access to the internet
One of the most popular sites is "Gooya" or Chatter.com, a portal with links to Persian-language news sites, chat rooms, music and shopping pages.

Gooya provides a backdoor into banned American sites such at Radio Liberty and the Voice of America. It also carries a selection of web logs, which are becoming increasingly fashionable in Iran. Even the vice-president has one, in which he posts daily musings about politics and life.

Another popular site is an online dating agency set up by a young ayatollah.

Islamic values

In recent months, however, there have been signs that Iran's strictly Islamic government is beginning to wake up to the power of the internet. As banned reformist newspapers quickly come back to life in online form, the mullahs are starting to look at ways to control the net in the same way they control the rest of the electronic media.

In a big crackdown at the end of last year, hundreds of internet cafes were shut down and new rules introduced for new proprietors, requiring them to restrict customer's access to a long list of "immoral and anti-Islamic sites".

For the moment at least, Iranian webmasters seem to be one step ahead. When a site is banned, it disappears only to re-emerge somewhere else under another name.

But it seems that the mullahs are also becoming web wise. Recently the feared Basij Islamic vigilante group announced that it's planning to open a chain of internet cafes of its own, to provide religious families with access to sites upholding the Islamic values. It appears Iran's internet wars are set to continue.


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