Freedom with free wifi: A proposal

I was reading an article in the Economist about the satellite industry. One company mentioned was space-broadband firm O3b, which is launching a network of satellites around the equator to provide greater broadband capacity to Africa. It reminded me of an idea which I’m sure many of you out there have also wondered about: what if all Iranians were given free wifi?

Here’s what you do: Provide the entire population of Iran free wifi access via satellite broadband technology. Free, unlimited, untraceable, unblockable access to the internet is freedom from state-sponsored media and all other institutions of the Islamic Republic, from the Supreme Leader to the Sepahi revolutionary guards who effectively rule Iran today. Giving the free gift of the internet is like giving Martin Luther a printing press in his home that could spread his subversive ideas around the world with a press of a button, and not be caught by the Vatican. It will give 75 million people the power to instantly connect with the world. That would be instant unprecedented freedom, without war, without violence, without a referendum, without waiting decades for a secular democracy.

Despite severe technical limitations and dangers in posting any material against the regime, the green movement owes much of its resilience to instant communication via the internet. In 1979 people learned about opposition to the Shah through cassette tapes, photocopies and short wave radio broadcasts from abroad. Back then every media outlet was tightly controlled by the state, as it is today. And today, just like 30 years ago, the opposition is using every means available to counter the lies spread by the state radio and TV as well as state-controlled newspapers. The most important means of communication by far has been the internet, a tool many times more powerful than cassette tapes.

Look at Mousavi’s speech last night. The man is under constant surveillance by the regime and could be arrested and jailed any day. He has no means of communicating with his supporters through normal channels. He bypasses all these obstacles and humiliates the supposedly all-powerful Islamic Republic through a talk on YouTube. Two of my friends and I watched it on a laptop far, far away from Iran. So will tens of thousands of others throughout the world and inside Iran in the next few days.

There are so many examples of how YouTube has become a news channel fed by content provided by ordinary people. The green movement has to be the most filmed political movement of all time. There are thousands of videos of post-election protests from inside Iran and abroad, as well numerous music videos, cartoons and commentaries unfavorable to the Islamic Republic. At the same time there countless independent news outlets and blogs that oppose the regime one way or another. All this non-violent but determined opposition is hurting the Islamic Republic’s authority tremendously. The ability of individuals to counter and expose the regime quickly across the world is the most powerful weapon any one could have in the fight against tyranny.

That’s how dangerous the internet is. The more you empower people with it, the weaker the Islamic Republic will become, and at a much faster pace. So why not spend, let’s say $100 million, and give the entire country free wifi coverage? Why not free Iranians with available, affordable technological means?

I once asked an American friend, who’s well-connected in Washington, why isn’t the United States building schools, hospitals, roads and infrastructure in the Middle East? Why is it easier to sell billions of dollars of weapons? Why is it more convenient to go to war, kill countless people and destroy nations, rather than building universities? Why can’t American politicians look back at the incredible success of the Marshal Plan in rebuilding Europe after World War II? She said that’s just the way Washington works these days. You cannot ask American taxpayers to pay for a hospital in Kabul but they won’t question billions spent on war.

Is that really true? I’m not so sure. I think Americans can and will appreciate the benefits of peaceful economic and cultural assistance.

If the American government really wants to empower the Iranian people in their fight for freedom it would seriously consider giving them free broadband access to all of them. Although I doubt if it would be taken seriously. It’s too much outside their usual strategic thinking. Too simple. Give every Iranian free wifi?! I can hear them laughing. My response would be: tell me why that’s a bad idea or why it’s not possible? Just think about the unlimited opportunities for political discussion and action, the instant bond between Iranians and the rest of the world, beyond the closed minds of the religious establishment.

So I’m not keen on Americans. In fact I think it would be much more desirable and appropriate if a few rich Iranians got together and paid for the satellite technology needed to give wifi coverage to the entire country. If that’s too ambitious, give free broadband only to Tehran residents. Freedom could never before come so quickly and easily.

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