POSTED ON 08.03.2013
In a decade characterised by war and instability, Iraq missed the boat to the digital world. Yet the fact that this is now destined to change has some Iraqi politicians worried.
By Jan Hendrik Hinzel and Johannes Kuhn
Of all the numerous foreign agents plying their trade in Iraq, one was literally impossible to “nab”. Iraqi MP Mohammed Redha al-Khafaji warned Iraqis a few months ago about an “international spy” who was threatening Iraq’s security and had the capacity to tap into phone calls and hack into e-mails with ease.
Outsiders may wonder at the fact that al-Khafaji, a Sadrist MP loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtadā al-Ṣadr, was not referring to a member of the CIA or some other foreign espionage agency. No, the culprit and focus of his ire was a new internet cable designed to connect Iraq with Europe. While ten years after the invasion by the “Coalition of the Willing” Iraq is certainly in short supply of many things – but conspiracy theories that sound at least somewhat plausible to the man on the street are not among them. And so it is that even the expansion of internet services has become a target of suspicion toward any foreign powers.
Even sections of the government are quite happy to use of such fear-mongering rhetoric, but none of this changes the fact that Iraq is currently experiencing its very own internet revolution. While the internet was key in other parts of the Arab world to organising and documenting protests, the point here is to create access for the Iraqi people to the internet in the first place. During Saddam Hussein’s reign, internet access was reserved for only a privileged few. As the worldwide web triumphed around the world in the years following 2003, civil war following in the wake of Saddam’s fall raged throughout Iraq.
As late as 2010, only one percent of the Iraqi population had access to the internet. And most of those people had to use internet cafés because, at the time, Iraq had the highest broadband fees in the world. In the meantime, the number of online users has multiplied seven times, and there are no signs of this trend abating. The Qatar-based conglomerate Gulf Bridge International (GBI) recently laid a submarine communications cable connecting Iraq with the other Gulf States and the European network. Next up is a fibre optics link to Frankfurt via Istanbul
And this may be only the beginning. With neighbouring Iran and Syria as the targets of international isolation for the foreseeable future, Iraq could potentially become the primary interchange for the transfer of data between Europe and the Gulf states. Iraq is on its way to becoming a “telecommunications hub” according to a recent euphoric prediction by the New York Times.
For now, the majority of Iraqis would be satisfied with affordable DSL capabilities, faster connections and better service. And they can only hope that in the wake of the growing number of broadband connections the government avoids the temptation to become the nation’s main internet saboteur. In the past, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has repeatedly advocated online censorship legislation to filter out “immoral content”, as many of Iraq’s neighbours do.
Only last year the government tabled legislation governing “IT crime” aimed at making the online publication of material contradicting “religious, moral, family or social values” punishable under the law. Official statements assert that the proposed law is intended to prevent extremists from using a variety of online channels to continue stoking hatred between Shiites and Sunnis, but digital civil rights group Accessnow.org describes the legislation as “Carte blanche” for the restriction of free speech on the internet. The criticism seems to have hit its mark, because in January of 2013 an influential parliamentary committee in Iraq spoke out against ratification of the legislation. It seems to have been put on the back burner since then.
If the draft legislation was a reaction to the fear of a potential digitally-driven revolution in Iraq, then such fears are unfounded at this time. Baghdad is not Cairo and Basra is not Aleppo. Hayder Hamzoz, an Iraqi refugee living in Malmö, Sweden and coordinator of the Iraqi Network for Social Media explains: “The Iraqis are following the protests in the other Arab countries very closely, but at the end of the day they are concentrating on the situation and the problems in Iraq.”
Among the problems placing higher demands on the attention of the Iraqis at present are the continuing conflict between Shiites and Sunnis and, above all, the corruption that is rampant in the country and which repeatedly brings activists out onto the streets. During the American occupation, many Iraqis still frequently used blogs to report as civilian journalists on the realities of the civil war. These days, the debate has moved more and more to the somewhat less public forum provided by Facebook.
While almost two million Iraqis have a Facebook account, a central political mass movement has not yet emerged from the trend. Amir Lemina, a journalist at the Kurdish newspaper Al Awat explains: “Protest on Facebook doesn’t really happen in groups. It happens mainly on each person’s own Facebook profile.”
Examinations of the Arab Spring nevertheless show that in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, the internet was able to play such a crucial role as a political tool because activists were able to use the mobile broadband internet to post information, photos and videos online directly.
This won’t be the case in Iraq for some time to come. Although almost 80 percent of the population has a mobile phone, only one user in 50 can benefit from the mobile UMTS network because of the smaller bandwidth and the prohibitive usage fees. An initiative aimed at expanding mobile broadband access has been tangled up for months, with the government and mobile services providers unable to agree on the financials for a deal. The allegation of corruption has been raised again in regard to this issue. A clearly exasperated representative of the mobile telecommunications industry recently declared that “there’s a strategic decision that the government needs to make. Do I want to develop the sector to accelerate the growth Iraq is experiencing, or do I just want to put money in my pocket and delay’s Iraq’s arrival in the 21st century?”
You certainly dosn’t have to believe in conspiracy theories to predict a rocky road for Iraq on the way to its own internet revolution.