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The Iranian Internet, by Maral Pourkazemi

An overwhelming visual overview of what's the Internet like in Iran

March 5, 2013

[This is a guest post by Maral Pourkazemi*, talking about the Iranian Internet infographic project, that we mentioned here on Visual Loop]


I was asked to share the story of my master thesis “the Iranian internet between freedom and isolation” with the Visual Loop audience. An infographic explaining the internet in Iran. Before I can tell you more about the design process and the challenges of getting data and information about this topic, I have to tell you the story
of how it all began.

In the year 2009 – the year of the presidential elections in Iran – Ahmadinejad defeated his major opponent Mousavi. After the announcement of his re-election, millions of Iranians gathered on the streets of Iran and started a protest that was later known as the “green movement”. It was not only a massive movement, it was also a very brutal one. Foreign journalists were kicked out of the country the second the unrest began, which meant that there was no traditional news coverage anymore. The only news source for people like you and me was the Internet.

Back then – like many others – I was drawn to my screen to follow my family, friends and their friends on Facebook, YouTube and blogs where they reported about the crackdowns during the protests. Sometimes it was a little bit scary because some days you found 50 new videos, on some other days you couldn’t find any. Why did that happen? Because Iranian authorities slowed down the internet infrastructure and upped the level of internet censorship. For the people in Iran, it was almost impossible to upload new content. Despite the fact that the Internet can be switched on and off whenever the authorities feel like it, the internet connection for private users is capped at 128kbps, only twice as
fast as the very old and noisy modem connection. I’m sure you remember how painful that was.

At that point I got curious and I started asking myself, “What is the Iranian internet and who is the Iranian user?” It was a hot topic in the media, but there were such conflicting points of view that I was inspired to conduct an in-depth analysis about this for my master’s thesis.

Censorship and lack of transparency is really common in Iran. As you can imagine, it is very hard to get ‘pure data’ from there. By pure data I mean exact statistics, numbers, and facts. It was a big challenge during the design process. All I was thinking of was, “How can I create a data visual without actually having existing data?” After a while I thought that I had to differentiate between data and information so that I could deal with them separately in the design. I designed data as numbers, and information as a scenario, an idea, a story, an emotion.

As part of the research phase I met with journalists, organizations, activists and politicians who were happy to provide me with both data and information. I started categorizing what I gathered into parameters.

The “Information Pool” structure was one of my first sketches. Looking at this today, I find it a bit intense. The truth is, this sketch helped me to understand what the Iranian internet really is. It was part of the process and it helped me to understand the data and information before I could present it in a responsible way. The next structure I came up with was the “Information Architecture” image.

Information Pool – the first step | image: Maral Pourkazemi


(the Information architecture | image: Maral Pourkazemi)

With this I developed my infographic “the Iranian internet”. Six panels visualizing the invisible and explaining the complexity of a topic that has only been talked about and argued about by experts. An infographic inspired by Persian rugs, Iranian architecture and Islamic calligraphy.

Panel 1 “Internet in the Islamic Republic of Iran”

(image: Maral Pourkazemi)
(image: Maral Pourkazemi)


This panel shows you who is online in Iran, and who can’t be online because of poor infrastructure and who can’t be online because the hardware costs too much.

I faced a number of challenges designing this panel, not least of which was the diversity of data coming from various sources. As an example in the beginning of 2012 one Iranian authority figure declared the number of Facebook users in Iran to be 17 million. Only two weeks later, another Iranian authority figure claimed the number to be only 6 million.

(image: Maral Pourkazemi)

Rather than displaying only one figure, which is typical of data visuals relying on numbers, I decided to show them all to demonstrate the diversity, confusion and conflict of opinions I was encountering.


Panel 2 “The Expansion of the Halal Internet”


(image: Maral Pourkazemi)
(image: Maral Pourkazemi)

This panel is a zoom-in into the black field of the previews panel. Halal is Arabic and means “approved” or “clean”. For this panel, I didn’t have any ‘data’. But I had information about a slow and isolated network, constantly monitored by the Iranian cyber army.

The panel shows how information how into, across, and out of Iran, and the mechanisms that attempt to prevent the !ow of information. “e core of this graphic is the Iranian internet: the ISPs, which are the black squares, and the Internet users who are placed inside the ISPs. The thick lines represent the slow connections and the
digital curtain of filtering and censorship.

The content you send or receive can be seen and decrypted by the cyber police and their monitoring centers. The eye in the middle of the visual is the cyber police. It is watching every data package and is tracking your online activity. Thee eye has a very spiritual meaning in Iran. Interestingly, they say that the ‘eye’ can guard you from evil looks.


(image: Maral Pourkazemi)


Some users manage to find holes and break through this curtain into the faster worldwide web by using circumvention tools. But that’s problematic too, so we move onto the next panel.


Panel 3 “Getting World Wide Access”

(image: Maral Pourkazemi)
(image: Maral Pourkazemi)


Panel 3 shows information as a scenario. In order to use filtered websites like Facebook or, Iranian users have to use circumvention tools. There are two common ways to break through the filtering. One is by using a VPN,
which stands for Virtual Private Network. Thee other is by using a tool like TOR, which makes browsing anonymous but also super slow.

(image: Maral Pourkazemi)


Unfortunately, even the use of these tools doesn’t ensure complete security.


Panel 4 “The Iranian Blogosphere”


(image: Maral Pourkazemi)
(image: Maral Pourkazemi)


“The Iranian blogosphere” is based on data gathered from a popular Persian blog aggregating website. Even though it is a tiny subsection of the Iranian blogosphere, it gives you a pretty clear picture of the type of content that is likely to get filtered. The inner segment represents blogs authored from within Iran, the central ones were authored by bloggers of an unknown location, and the outer ones are based outside of Iran. The shaded icons are filtered blogs and the spikes show the different blog categories.


(image: Maral Pourkazemi)


One interesting point is that many bloggers inside Iran use Blogspot as their blog host, even though it is filtered. This also means that they use circumvention tools to be able to publish their blogs. On the other side, Iranians in diaspora are also subscribing to blog hosts based inside Iran. This is interesting, because by making this choice they agree to play by the rules of the Islamic Republic, even though they’re not geographically bound by them. The Iranian authorities are able to request blogs hosted on Iran-based platforms to be deleted.


Panel 5 “The Cyber Criminals”


(image: Maral Pourkazemi)
(image: Maral Pourkazemi)


Panel 5 introduces you to the ‘cyber criminals’. These are the people the Iranian authorities are engaged in what they call a “soft war” against. However, the punishments doled out by the authorities are certainly not soft.


(image: Maral Pourkazemi)


The information here is presented as narrative stories. One of the bloggers, Omid Mir Sayafi, was the first Iranian blogger to die in prison. He blogged about music and wrote satirical poems and stories. But it’s not only Iranians who live inside the country who are in danger or who are being carefully watched. Iranians outside the country, who are active online and deemed to be a threat by the authorities, can be prosecuted if they travel to Iran. The most famous example of this is the case of Canada-based Hossein Derakhshan, who is known as the Iranian blog father. He was accused of being a spy and sentenced to 19.5 years in prison.


Panel 6 “The System of Government”


(image: Maral Pourkazemi)
(image: Maral Pourkazemi)


The Iranian government and judicial system is complex and convoluted. This panel shows the complexities of the Iranian system whilst also showing that the power, both directly and indirectly, lies very firmly in the hands of Iran’s Supreme Leader.


(image: Maral Pourkazemi)


As I mentioned earlier, my inspiration for this project came from Persian rugs, Iranian architecture and Islamic calligraphy. I’d like to tell you why it was important for me to use the Persian rugs not only as an inspiration to develop a visual language but also to metaphorically support the story of the Iranian internet.

If you look at a Persian rug from a distance you can see a pattern. You see lines that give this pattern a structure. From a distance, the pattern on the rug looks neatly organized or controlled. If you get just a little bit closer, this controlled pattern becomes pure chaos. It loses transparency and it becomes confusing.

This is not something that happens only on Persian rugs, it happens with the Iranian internet too.

*Maral Pourkazemi graduated from the Muthesius University of Fine Arts in Kiel/ Germany (2006-2009), beginning after that a six-month internship at an advertising agency in Hamburg. Currently she works at London-based non-profit Small Media Lab as their Creative Manager. You can see Maral’ works on Behance, as well as her previous guest post here on Visual Loop.

Written by Tiago Veloso

Tiago Veloso is the founder and editor of Visualoop and Visualoop Brasil . He is Portuguese, currently based in Bonito, Brazil.