Any business has a chance to make it big on a free and open internet, from the flower shop down the street to the tech startup in a garage.
When the internet was first being developed in the 1990s, a Democratic U.S. president and a Republican-controlled Congress agreed that it would be the policy of the United States “to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the internet … unfettered by federal or state regulation.” That bipartisan principle — that a competitive free market is best preserved with minimal government interference — still holds true and helped U.S. businesses sell goods and services worth an estimated $453.5 billion online in 2017, according to the latest government data.
But around the world, internet freedom is in decline for the seventh year in a row, according to a report from Freedom House, a U.S. advocacy group. Iran, for example, ranked near the bottom of the list, number 62 of 65 countries that make up most of the world’s internet population. The government there has started to boot entrepreneurs off of popular online applications. That could hurt profits or even shut down thousands of small businesses that rely on the apps.
Why block popular apps?
Four out of five internet users in Iran have Telegram, a messaging app they use to catch up on news, chat with friends — and build their businesses. But now those businesses are in trouble. On April 30, the Iranian Judiciary blocked its citizens’ most popular app, which will affect millions. (Currently, 45 million of Iran’s 80 million citizens have internet access, a figure from the International Telecommunication Union, a U.N. organization.)
It’s not the first time the Iranian government has clamped down on the internet. Authorities pulled the plug on Telegram and photo-sharing app Instagram from late December to mid-January in an attempt to stop people from joining anti-government demonstrations. This attack on free speech had another effect: disrupting the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Iranians.
According to an official at Iran’s Ministry of Communications, 180,000 families in Iran rely on online businesses. Abbas Baghban, an app developer in Iran, told news site Trend that Telegram sites can serve as a virtual store. “Blocking access to these apps would eventually lead these groups of entrepreneurs to lose their jobs,” he said. He estimated that 1 million people earn money from small online businesses in Iran.
The State Department’s spokesperson, Heather Nauert, said earlier this year, “When a nation clamps down on social media, we ask the question, ‘What are you afraid of?’”