MASHHAD, Iran, Jan 29, 2015 – To an outsider, visiting an IT seminar in Iran might seem like a bizarre mix of tradition, blatant advertising and emotional calls to stop government stifling of the Internet.
Like any official Iranian event, the one-day seminar at Mashhad’s Islamic Azad University, began with the obligatory Koran recitation and poetic nationalistic slogans for the 400 or so students and IT professionals, seated segregated by sex.
“Iran is the land of kindness; my spirit I offer you, Iran,” the seminar emcee sang, beseeching the audience to celebrate the National Persian Gulf Day, April 30th.
The speakers, though, concentrated on the basics of online marketing and branding, with inevitable references to western brands and personalities, such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s.
“The most successful sites, like Facebook, figured out how to turn the users into creators of the content,” said program manager Ehsan Safar Khorasani, as the projector flashed Zuckerberg’s 2010 Man of the Year Time Magazine cover. “It’s this collective intelligence that today accounts for the most valuable content.”
Mentions of Facebook, and the Dutch brewer Heineken by another speaker, present a dichotomy because alcohol is strictly banned in Iran and Facebook is one the many websites filtered by the Islamic government.
Yet many of politicians have Facebook pages. The country’s estimated 45 million users – Middle East’s largest online population – can access President Hassan Rouhani Facebook posts only through filter bypass technologies, such as VPN, which are also banned but commonly available.
The day’s last speaker, Dr. Aliakbar Jalali, made fun of the contractions, to the amusement and applause of the audience that had stayed silent through the previous presentations.
“Facebook is not a crime; I have a letter from the judiciary that says so,” said Jalali, of Iran University of Science and Technology and a former electrical engineering adjunct professor at West Virginia University.
Introduced as “the father of Iran’s information technology,” Jalai called on the ruling clergy to embrace the online world lest it loses credibility. With the falling oil prices Iran has no choice but join the “new border-less continent of Internet” to boost commerce and education or face intractable budget deficits.
He called on the government to ease international travel, internet filtering and its ban on high-speed access.
Internet in Iran is universally unreliable and kept at crawl speed under heavy government regulation, even though online communication is critical to banking and other commerce and Iranians pay some of the world’s highest rates for Internet service.
“In South Korea they have one gig per second. That’s one thousand megabits per seconds. Here in Iran they say they have ‘super-speed’ internet. What’s the speed? 64k,” he said, as the crowed roared with laughter. “If this is first class, imagine what the second class looks like.
“There’s a new continent called the continent of the Internet. Who is its king in this continent? Who cares who is its king? Do we always have to have borders and governments and bosses? No. Are these divisions designed so we always fight each other?
“Whether you want it or not, we have to become part of this common culture. We don’t have a choice because history is changing.”
To some attendees, Jalali’s speech was the sole positive outcome of the seminar, which provided attendees nary of written material other than gift bags full of slick advertising brochures, most unrelated to information technology. It was impossible to tell who were the speakers because of lack of written information. Inquiries were referred to the seminar’s website, which was impossible to check because the WiFi password remained a close-kept secret.
“There was no compelling reason to attend,” said Mohammed Akhlaghi, a web developer at the local Khorasan newspaper. “There was no opportunity for networking and it wasn’t highly educational. Just a lot of people giving speeches and a lot of advertising.”
But Jalali’s speech “makes you think there is hope. That things will eventually change,” said Ali Borhani, a freelance app developer. The culture of the web “might take ten years to take hold. But without such speeches and people like Jalali pushing for change, it might take 50 years to be accepted.”