How Iran Could Make State Censorship Into A Cash Cow

Anywhere in the world, the fastest way to make anything popular is to ban it. Certainly Iran, which actually is an Internet infrastructure provider and which has by far the largest Internet using population in the Middle East, undoubtably knows that. So when Iran is handed a gold mine like The Innocence of Muslims, what should it do? 

The pitiful YouTube trailer for a possibly fake film entitled The Innocence of Muslims, whose very actors are embarrassed to have been hoodwinked into participating, may have become the most popular — or at least, the most popularly viewed — bad movie not to have been lampooned by Rifftrax.  Iran is one of the video's most vocal critics, which was probably as intended.

It isn’t immediately obvious to most Americans, for whom Iran is typically portrayed as a backward country, but actually Iran is an Internet power player. Not headquarters to an Internet giant, but an actual Internet giant in itself. A 2010 estimate by China-based communications analyst Globserver states that, of Iran’s total population of nearly 77 million people, 33.2 million - about 43.2% of the population - were registered Internet users. Only 9.8 million Saudis are Internet users. More than half (52.5%) of all the Middle East’s Internet users, and 15.6% of the entire Middle East population, were customers of Iranian services in 2010.

Black Rock East

The government of Iran owns its Internet. In 2007, the country spun off its state-owned telephone service, creating a competitive market for a new breed of mobile phone carrier there, including MTN, MCI (no relation) and Zoha Kish. But for these companies to offer mobile data services with their mobile phones (which they could choose not to do... but what would be the point?) they must pay the government (through its wholly owned Internet subsidiary, TIC) a monthly percentage. In 2010, the minimum monthly payment was sealed at around $1 million.

Or, according to 2010 exchange rates, $10.2 billion rials per month. Today, however, for Iran to reap the same value from its mobile data plan resellers, it would have to charge $12.2 billion. You see, one of the unpleasant side effects of developing nuclear technology while threatening to wipe a neighboring country off the map is that the rest of the world sells off your currency. This has resulted in a dramatic devaluation of the Iranian rial. Indeed, the rial hit a historic low today. With U.S. and European sanctions against Iran’s oil exports and banking transactions having the desired effect, Iran has to make a living somehow.

And here, you have a video that’s gone viral. Hey, if ReadWriteWeb can make a killing from viral videos, why can’t Iran? And if you want to make a bad video really viral, why not follow in the footsteps of Russia, the Phillipines, Lebanon and Germany and ban access to the video - or at least publicly debate the merits of doing so?

Because you know what happens when you threaten to ban a video: Pro-free speech groups launch a public screening of the thing. Widescreen, HD, streaming Wireless-N video, probably with popcorn.

Do Not Watch This Video

It’s not like Iran’s 33.2 million netizens are all incapable of finding the allegedly blasphemous video by other means, as this Bing search using Iran as the country code clearly demonstrates.  (An independent Iranian businessperson said as much to France24 just today.) Videos housed on YouTube may still be visible in Iran through Bing, even without a visit the YouTube URL. And even if they’re not, clearly YouTube is no longer the only source.

With oil no longer viable as the country’s only lifeblood, Iran has to take advantage of what opportunities fall into its lap. Think about it, this pitiful little video could be a bandwidth bonanza! Over the weekend, Iran took the bait, banning access to both YouTube and parent Google from clients using its state-owned Internet infrastructure.

And to start the viral marketing push with a bang, what could be better than for Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to embark on a world tour? In New York this week, before the United Nations, Ahmadinejad suggested to a conference of scholars and students that the nations of the world should band together in harmony to ban all content that offends religions.

Now, even more people want to see the practically unwatchable video that has caused all the hubbub.

Smaller Bang, Bigger Boom

Maybe it’s too late for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to become the next Steve Jobs, but he seems to already be adopting Apple’s basic lesson of owning the infrastructure, limiting access to the product and making the product more desirable than peace itself. Even as the country rails against the video, the rials (or more preferably, dollars) roll in from active participants in Iran's state-owned social media platform on its state-owned infrastructure.

Hey, maybe Ahmadinejad and filmmaker “Sam Bacile” could work out a little deal. "You provide the blasphemy and the white guys wearing bedsheets," the president could say, "and I’ll provide the audience." Mel Brooks couldn’t have worked out a better plot.