New data on internet use in Iran
It has been a while since I posted anything here. Today, I am prompted to write because my “good” excuse for the long absence has been removed. The website of the Statistical Center of Iran (SCI), which has been inaccessible from outside Iran since it was hacked last May, is back on. (My other excuse — resettling in Cambridge, MA, to spend my sabbatical year (2016/17) at the Middle East Initiative of Harvard Kennedy School — is less valid every day.)
Access to the regular inflow of data from the SCI website has been crucial for my writing on this blog as well as for my academic research. Without numbers, the blog would turn into the Tyranny of Opinions on Iran, of which there is plenty already. So yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to discover that access to the site for users outside Iran had been restored (hopefully permanently), and I found several interesting new reports to read and write about.
The newest report, on the results of a 2016 household survey on access to Information Technology, is of particular interest and is a subject that I have wanted to write about for some time. How IT and social media have transformed the political scene in the Middle East, from Iran’s 2009 protests to the Arab Spring of 2011, has been much discussed, and often without reliable data. How extensive is access to the internet in fact and how widely is it shared across these countries we do not quite know.
In the case of Iran, the new data from the SCI report shows that media reports exaggerate Iranian access to the internet. For example, IranPoll.com, defending their web based survey frame, claimed extensive access to the internet in Iran: “As of June 2016, it is estimated that there are 56.7 million Internet users in Iran.” (Notice the use of the passive tense — “it is estimated”, by whom we are not told.) But it is easy to show that this number is a wild exaggeration because 56.7 million is 90% of all Iranians 10 years and older, and since some 10% of them are poor, the claim is in effect that every non-poor Iranian has access to the internet. I am not sure how this assumption affects the accuracy of IranPoll surveys of opinion in Iran, but I know that they are influential. Their poll results showing diminished support in Iran for nuclear deal was widely reported.
The SCI report covers more media access than just internet use. An interesting statistic is about access to satellite TV: 23.5% of the 24.3 million households surveyed reported having satellite TV, a remarkable number given that it is banned. Access in rural areas is lower, 18.6% compared to 25.2% in urban areas. Nearly all households (99.3%) in the survey owned a TV, two-thirds of which are digital.
Going to more sophisticated media, 57.7% of households own a desktop, laptop, or tablet computer (64.8% in urban and 36.1% in rural areas). About 55.5% of households in the survey have access to the internet (62.1% in urban and 36.7% in rural areas). This is high coverage but by no means universal. More importantly, the internet haves and have-nots are not the same. This SCI survey does not break down access by income, but another survey, Household Expenditure and Income Survey (HEIS), which comes out annually, reports on the same media, and allows us to look at the distribution of access to computers and the internet by income group. The two surveys do not agree on overall access. HEIS for the same year (1394) reports only 35.6% own a computer and access to the internet at home at only 29.5%. I do not know why there are these differences, perhaps due to survey focus or coverage. But the HEIS data, which SCI makes available in micro form, show how access differs by income class.
The table below shows the percentage of individuals with access to internet, computer, and mobile by quintiles of per capita expenditures. There is very uneven access for computer and internet use: Those in the top quintile are 10 times as likely to have access to either service as persons in the bottom quintile. In contrast, mobile phones are more evenly distributed across income classes. HEIS data, which indicate ownership at the household level, show that 92.3% of households own a mobile phone (and 95.8% of individuals living in these households). Clearly, there are more and better phones in the higher income groups, so the distribution in this table that assumes access for all individuals in a household if any one member has a mobile phone, exaggerates the equality of access. Still, it is a remarkable fact that over 92% of the poorest Iranians live in a household where a mobile phone is present.
Note: Per capita expenditures are in 2015 rials per person per day and adjusted for differences in cost of living across Iran.
Source: SCI data files for 1394 (2015/2016)
If nothing else, these data offer a reminder not to use the term “Iranians” too liberally when referring to their digital versatility (or many other of their characteristics for that matter). So be wary of reports such as this from an Iranian online research firm, which claimed that, “two-thirds (58 percent) of Iranians [emphasis added] used Facebook back in 2012.” Not all Iranians are tech savvy, and it matters a lot to know who is and who is not.