A little more than a year ago, I posted a brief note on the Iranian newsgroup, SCI asking for writers for a new magazine. The only thing that explained what The Iranian is was a cover page. It only showed a woman standing on a sidewalk.
Who is an Iranian? Someone living in Mashhad? Or Munich? A Hezbollahi or a Shahollahi? A pastry-shop owner in Shiraz? A pop singer in Los Angeles? Or is she a law student at Harvard? A molla or a mojahed? A newborn in New York? A taxi driver in Tehran? A professor in Tokyo?
They are all Iranians. But there is one group that is generating particular excitement and hope. Younger Iranians. Specifically, those who are getting on the Net in fast growing numbers.
They come from all sorts of backgrounds but they seem to be shaping into a special breed. These Iranians are clearly breaking from past and present widespread attitudes of suspicion, mistrust and intolerance.
They won't necessarily agree with you but they listen -- even when they pretend not to. They love to learn. They can't wait to explore new Web sites. And most of all, they relish the fact that they can speak their mind freely across the globe with the press of a button.
Finally, we have our freedom of expression. Unlimited freedom of expression. Write, speak, show anything and display it to the world. Nobody's going to stop you. (Nobody might give a damn about what you have to say either. But that's a different story).
And don't worry, this gift of glorious liberty comes courtesy of an electronic network rather than a politician. So, there's no chance that it will be taken away in a coup, or by a bunch of thugs.
Well, not so fast...
Just a few weeks ago in early August, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the U.S. ordered the University of Vienna, Austria, to disconnect access to/from Iran via the NSF. In effect, computers in the U.S. did not have access to Iran and vice versa. The excuse: U.S. sanctions forbid the NSF from handling Iranian traffic.
At first, those who frequently communicate with Iran, thought something had gone wrong at the Iranian end, which was nothing unusual. Iran's network is so feeble that it frequently breaks down or clogs up. But after a few days it became apparent that we were dealing with a totally unexpected phenomenon: Censorship of the Net by the U.S.
Operators, or Webmasters -- don't you love that title? -- of major Iranian sites hosted in the U.S. were furious. Imagine this: A lion is born in captivity; he grows up and is let loose into the wild. He tastes the sweetness of freedom and then, suddenly one day, he is captured and caged again. What the HELL...?
We started emailing each other from different cities to organize a plan of action. We gathered evidence, dug up laws that showed the exchange of information with Iran was not banned by U.S. sanctions, attracted the interest of civil rights groups on the Net, informed international news organizations and let the NSF people know that we were coming after them.
Almost a week went by. We were ready to make a public stand and get the Iranian Internet community at large directly involved. Then news came that the NSF had backed down and decided to restore the lines to Iran (they had no legal case and apparently didn't want to create a political issue in a presidential election year).
You can imagine the size of that smile on the face of the lion, stepping out of the cage again...
The joy of helping to stop censorship on the Internet, and succeeding, is one thing. The pure pleasure of seeing a group of largely anonymous Iranians working for a common cause is quite another.
They were, Payman Arabshahi (Internet expert at University of Washington), Anoosh Hosseini (Webmaster, Global Publishing Group), myself, Ali Moayedian (Webmaster, Payvand) Mahmoud Shahbodaghi (Webmaster, Soroush) and Farhad Shakeri (Webmaster, Iranian Cultural and Information Center "tehran.stanford.edu")
These guys still barely know each other and some of them have never met or spoken. But they still trusted each other, and respected and shared their concerns. They, more than many others, appreciate the fact that the Internet is the freest medium of communication in the history of mankind because they know what it's like not to be free.
And the best news is that they are only a few members of the tolerant, open-minded and forward-looking Iranian Internet community: the New Iranians.
Palo Alto, California