Iran's Hardline Supreme Council on Cyberspace Consolidates Power Over Internet Policymaking

On September 5, 2015, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei re-appointed the members of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace for another four-year term. Image from ICHRI.

On September 5, 2015, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei re-appointed the members of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace for another four-year term. Image from ICHRI.

This post originally appeared on iranhumanrights.org and is published here in collaboration with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has elected to shift authority over national Internet policy to the country’s Supreme Cyberspace Council, a move that will consolidate Internet policy decision-making power under the government's most conservative branch.

Previously, multiple state bodies were involved in making Internet policy, allowing for diverse power centers—including those controlled by the more moderate Rouhani administration—to weigh in on Internet decisions.

The decision may bode poorly for digital rights in Iran: the Council, while chaired by President Rouhani, reports directly to Khamenei. A majority of its members are appointed by the Supreme Leader, who has said he believes the Internet is “used by the enemy to target Islamic thinking.” The Supreme Council of Cyberspace directs the filtering of the Internet in Iran and determines which websites should be blocked. At present, Iran is second only to China in the number of sites it has blocked.

“This decision will give a free pass to security agencies to block any site—or go after any individual—that challenges the official line,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

The decision to consolidate Internet policy making power in the Supreme Cyberspace Council comes within the context of a growing struggle between hardliners who want to severely restrict Internet access, and moderates who argue greater Internet access is necessary for modern commercial, academic, and professional activities.

New Supreme Cyberspace Council members are human rights violators

Membership of the Council is comprised of either individuals directly appointed by Khamenei or members of relevant government ministries and organizations. The combined number of individuals who are directly appointed by Khamenei, as opposed to members of the elected government, gives the Supreme Leader an unbreakable majority over the council.

In a re-appointment letter on Khamenei’s website, he also announced three new members to the Supreme Cyberspace Council, of which two, Reza Taghipour and Seyed Ezatollah Zarghami have been sanctioned by both the US and the EU for human rights violations.

Cutting Rouhani out of Internet policymaking

The change, introduced via an announcement posted on Khamenei’s website on September 5, 2015, will effectively cut the Rouhani administration out of Internet policy making.

Since Rouhani's election in 2013, the Ministry of Information and Communications has played an important role trying to advance Internet access in Iran and has at times pushed back against hardliners. In June 2014, Rouhani refused to implement orders by the Working Group to Determine Instances of Criminal Content, another state body that has been involved in Internet filtering decisions and which works under the Supreme Council, to block the instant messaging service WhatsApp.

The country's approach to Internet filtering has also been a source of tension between moderates and hardliners, who have consistently advocated blanket blocking of sites with objectionable content. The Rouhani administration has argued that a more selective style of “smart filtering,” in which only objectionable content is blocked, would be sufficient to weed out offensive material, allowing sites to otherwise operate as usual. Despite technical challenges that this presented, Rouhani's position on the matter reflected a greater degree of flexibility regarding online content than his more conservative counterparts.

Will new leadership push for data localization?

On September 6, 2015, one day after Khamenei’s letter was posted, the Deputy Prosecutor for Cyberspace Affairs Abdolsamad Khorramabadi told Fars News Agency:

Foreign cell phone messaging networks such as WhatsApp, Viber, and Telegram…[provide] grounds for widespread espionage by foreign states on the citizens’ communications [and] have turned into a safe bed for cultural invasion and organized crime.

Khorramabadi argued that all social networks “affiliated…to hostile states and foreign intelligence services” should be completely blocked.

He and other officials have also argued that only those social networks that agree to locate their servers inside Iran be allowed to operate. So far no global company has agreed to this proposal. Such a move could bring severe reputational costs to any company, as placing servers inside Iran would allow state authorities access to content flowing across them and potentially endanger user security and privacy.

Khorramabadi also told Fars that Iran’s domestic social networks should be strengthened so that the country’s users would migrate to them. Duplicating global Internet services and applications with government-produced versions that covertly provide the authorities with backdoor access to the accounts has been central to state efforts to covertly monitor online content, and to identify and prosecute online activists.

Hardliners and moderates also clash over providing access to high speed Internet. For years, the authorities slowed the Internet to render it effectively unusable, particularly for mobile phone use. Rouhani’s decision to approve the granting of licenses for 3G and 4G networks in April 2014 was seen as a major advance for mobile Internet access. However, the state broadcasting agency, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), has refused to grant the frequency necessary for nationwide access to 3G and 4G services, limiting their coverage. The head of IRIB is appointed by Khamenei and reports directly to him.

Four arrested for posting “insulting” content online

Meanwhile, the authorities’ assault on Internet users continues unabated. On August 30, 2015, Judiciary spokesperson Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei reported the imprisonment of four individuals who posted “insulting” content in cyberspace, the latest in a long line of arrests and prosecution of Internet professionals and social media users.

In addition, the Tehran Police Commander Hossein Sajedinia told the official Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) on September 6, 2015, that over the last five months, Iran’s Fata Cyber police had closed 272 Internet cafes and issued warnings to another 847.

“Khamenei believes if he can maintain control over the Internet, he can maintain control over the citizenry. But with more than half of Iran’s 80 million people online, that train has already left the station.” Ghaemi said.

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