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National Web Studies: Mapping Iran Online

This work offers an approach to conceptualizing, demarcating and analyzing a national web. Instead of defining a priori the types of websites to be included in a national web, the approach put forward here makes use of web devices (platforms and engines) that purport to provide (ranked) lists of URLs relevant to a particular country. Once gathered in such a manner, the websites are studied for their properties, following certain of the common measures (such as responsiveness and page age), and repurposing them to speak in terms of the health of a national web: Are sites lively, or neglected? The case study in question is Iran, which is special for the degree of Internet censorship undertaken by the state. Despite the widespread censorship, we have found a highly responsive Iranian web. We also report on the relationship between blockage, responsiveness and freshness, i.e., whether blocked sites are still up, and also whether they have been recently updated. Blocked yet blogging portions of the Iranian web show strong indications of an active Internet censorship circumvention culture. In seeking to answer, additionally, whether censorship has killed content, a textual analysis shows continued use of language considered critical by the regime, thereby indicating a dearth of self-censorship, at least for websites that are recommended by the leading Iranian platform, Balatarin. The study concludes with the implications of the approach put forward for national web studies, including a description of the benefits of a national web health index.

Authors: Richard Rogers, Esther Weltevrede, Sabine Niederer and Erik Borra
February 2012

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