Iran is tightening control of the Internet ahead of next month’s presidential election, mindful of violent street protests that social networkers inspired last time around over claims of fraud, users and experts say. The authorities deny such claims, but have not explained exactly why service has become slower. Businesses, banks and even state organisations are not spared by the widespread disruption in the Internet, local media say. “The Internet is in a coma,” said the Ghanoon daily in a report in early this month. “It only happens in Iran: the election comes, the Internet goes,” it said, quoting a tweet in Farsi. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and numerous other sites, including thousands of Western ones, have been censored in Iran since massive street demonstrations that followed the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. Those protests — stifled by a heavy-handed crackdown that led to numerous arrests and even deaths — were instigated online and observers say the authorities are choking the Internet to prevent a recurrence.
Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil.” But what would it mean for democracy if it was? That’s the question psychologist Robert Epstein has been asking in a series of experiments testing the impact of a fictitious search engine — he called it “Kadoodle” — that manipulated search rankings, giving an edge to a favored political candidate by pushing up flattering links and pushing down unflattering ones. Not only could Kadoodle sway the outcome of close elections, he says, it could do so in a way most voters would never notice. Epstein, who had a public spat with Google last year, offers no evidence of actual evil acts by the company. Yet his exploration of Kadoodle — think of it as the equivalent of Evil Spock, complete with goatee — not only illuminates how search engines shape individual choices but asks whether the government should have a role in keeping this power in check. “They have a tool far more powerful than an endorsement or a donation to affect the outcome,” Epstein said. “You have a tool for shaping government. . . . It’s a huge effect that’s basically undetectable.”