This post was written by Mahsa Alimardani as part of a larger Article 19 report on the state of Internet freedoms prior to the 19 May Iranian presidential elections.
When Hassan Rouhani first ran for president of Iran in 2013, he ran as a reformist candidate who promised big changes towards liberalizing Iran's economy and giving citizens greater access to information.
Front and center in his message was a pledge to improve Internet access – and to make it easier, freer and more affordable for more Iranians. This was a bold platform to pursue in contrast to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who spearheaded the regime of censorship and control that has shaped Iran's Internet policy for more than a decade.
Rouhani is now seeking re-election (on May 19), and Internet policy remains a key component of politicians’ appeal for Iran’s population of 80 million, a demographic dominated by tech-savvy youth under 35. With this in mind, we look back at his promises and policy goals, and how they've played out in practice.
Rouhani's central Internet policy platform centered on better access, with a focus on increasing Internet speeds to improve the country's economic situation. He even issued a “Charter of Citizen Rights” that enshrined rights to free speech and online privacy for citizens, though it is unclear what legal basis (if any) the document holds.
But in comparison to previous administrations, Rouhani's has had relatively little control over Internet censorship. Following civil unrest in 2009, Internet policy decisions became increasingly centralised under the office of the Supreme Leader with the creation of a Supreme Council of Cyberspace, which is now the ultimate decision making body on the Internet. While the Council include Iran's Judiciary and Revolutionary Guards, it does not include the president.
Charter of Citizen Rights
Fulfilling one of his 2013 campaign promises, the Rouhani administration published a Charter of Citizen Rights in December 2016. There are a few articles in the document that guarantee Iranian rights online:
Article 26: The Government shall, according to the law, guarantee freedom of speech and expression, especially in the mass media, cyber space, including in newspapers, magazines, books, cinemas, radio and television, social networks and the likes.
Article 33: Citizens have the right to freely and without discrimination enjoy access to and communicate and obtain information and knowledge from cyberspace.
Article 35 Citizens have the right to enjoy cyber security, security of communication technologies and informatics, and protection of their personal data and privacy.
Thus far, the Charter’s guarantees have not been reflected in the arrests, censorship, and other forms of online repression which have occurred throughout the Rouhani administration.
Regulating Telegram and Filtering Instagram (Intelligently)
Despite filtering of smaller more secure apps such as Signal and Wispi, Rouhani’s administration has successfully prevented newer social media platforms from being blocked, including WhatsApp, Line, Tango, and Telegram.
But while these platforms have remained online, they have still been subject to strict limitations, as have their users. For Telegram, which with an estimated 40 million users has become the most popular messaging app in the country, the government now requires all public channels with over 5,000 followers to register with the Cyber Police. The policy stems from government rhetoric over the dangers of the free flow of information and an effort combat “fake news”.
In January 2017, administrators found that when they registered with the relevant authority, Samandehi.ir, they were forced to add an automated government bot as an account co-administrator. The bot is suspected to enable wide-ranging surveillance abilities by allowing access to databases of specific users whose online activity can be further monitored.
In tandem with these measures, certain features of the app also have been eliminated for Iranian users. The the hardline judiciary (which does not lie within Rouhani's control) blocked Telegram's calling feature a day after it was released in Iran on 14 April 2017. The prosecutor general told Iranians during a 22 April IRIB broadcast:
With the help of all our security agencies, we have determined that Telegram voice calls are harmful to national security, especially so close to an election.
After ICT Minister Mahmoud Vaezi stated that Telegram would be censoring its sticker feature for immoral content for Iranians, in cooperation with Iranian authorities, Telegram vehemently denied cooperation with the Iranian government to impose censorship, beyond censoring Porn Bots, which they explained occurs in every country Telegram operates in. But some experts on the issue maintain suspicion that Telegram has agreed to terms set by the Iranian government, in order to avoid being censored altogether.
Like Telegram, Instagram has become a platform where the Iranian government has exercised some power over speech, without shutting it down altogether. While Rouhani's administration has prevented Instagram from being blocked in Iran, they have simultaneously attempted a strategy of “intelligent filtering” on the platform.
In May 2015, Internet researchers cast doubt on the administration’s claims that the government was developing “sophisticated” technology to employ intelligent filtering on platforms like Instagram, proving that the government was simply taking advantage of Facebook’s omission of https (or SSL/TLS encryption) deployment to censor individual pages. While that technical evidence largely discredited the Ministry's claims, the ICT Ministry has announced a new effort to penalize specific users for posting immoral content, instead of censoring or penalizing the administrators of specific platforms. It is unclear how the government will implement this new policy.
Censoring Global Voices
Among thousands of websites censored under the Rouhani administration, one that naturally stood out to Global Voices was our own domain. When Global Voices transitioned from http to https in 2015, the site suddenly became accessible in Iran, after having been blocked for several years. This indicated that the block was dependent on technical specifications contingent upon http. Iran’s filtering committee now seems to have selectively reinstated the filtering on the new https website, but it has limited this to the Persian language version of Global Voices (fa.globalvoices.org)
While censorship is a direct strategy to curtail the free flow of information, arrests, intimidations and the fear of looming surveillance work to stifle freedom of expression more than any technical filter can. This past year was punctuated with the arrests and physical take overs of the social media pages of models and members of the fashion industry, and progressed recently into various reformist and pro-Rouhani Telegram channels being seized and their administrators arrested.
Another prominent government strategy is to hack or target users online, in particular to dissuade or frighten Iranians from using certain online activities or expressions. The technical research of the Iran Threats project has detailed sophisticated strategies and technologies employed to attack users, including malware that targets journalists, and various methods of hijacking Telegram accounts. From January to February 2017, a number of journalists, members of Iranian civil society and activists in the diaspora were on the receiving end of Iranian government phishing attacks, with a mass notice from the Google email service Gmail informing several of these individuals that their emails were the target of “nation-state” attackers. These efforts have been previously linked to the Iran Cyber Army work to intimidate activists and journalists voicing opinions critical of the Iranian state.
Innovation and Control
There has been a very thin line between innovation and control in this administration’s shaping of Internet policy, as improvements of internet development come with a heavy price in handing over data to the government. This is seen in many of the promises of the incoming President to further develop Iran’s ICT industry, increase Internet speeds, and boost entrepreneurship, especially in the startup realm.
This approach has brought a mix of economic and cultural benefits and likely implications of increased government surveillance.
Boosting local ICT development has helped with one of the mandates of the National Internet Project, which is to localize all Internet services and place servers inside the country, thereby promoting local industry away while tightening controls away from foreign competition.
But while this does promote local development, it also puts local users’ data under the firm jurisdiction of Iranian law and the notoriously conservative judiciary, potentially increasing opportunities for government surveillance. Notable cases of the government’s use of user data for repression include the arrests of Isa Saharkhiz, whose mobile messages were exploited for cell phone monitoring, as well as the arrest of Iranian-American Nostrallah Khosravi-Roodsari who is believed to have been arrested based on Iran’s mass surveillance of SMS data.
While direct policies and regulations are a known method aimed to tighten controls in Iran, the second strategy of suspected government efforts to hack and intimidate the online activities of users are often more definitively grave – and they are also more difficult to report on.
There also has been a quiet unfiltering of Twitter. Reports since November 2016 have led many to believe this slow, quiet, and limited unfiltering of Twitter has led to an increase in Twitter users from inside Iran. This is because there are different filtering policies per ISP, previously done at a nationwide (IXP) level. In November 2016, many users were reporting access to Twitter through the Shatel network.
One marked achievement for this administration is the Internet bandwidth. Speeds have increased in Iran tenfold, from 624 gigabits per second to 4,000 gigabits per second in at the beginning of 2017, and increasing the country’s fiber optic network an additional 10,000 km since 2013. One of the greatest access to information struggles has been connection speeds, a form of censorship that government has even used to keep users from online activities, the best example being the 2013 Presidential elections.
While the Rouhani administration claims it has made great strides towards Internet freedoms, its main achievement has been in preventing broad-based censorship on certain platforms. The implementation of blocks on thousands of websites continued throughout his administration, alongside numerous arrests and efforts to centralize user data into the hands of the government. And the work of Iran’s conservative Judiciary and Revolutionary Guards has continued to strengthen state intimidation, arrests, surveillance and censorship. As the country approaches its 12th Presidential election, real concerns exist for both Iranians’ ability to freely share and distribute information during this important political moment, as well as the Rouhani government’s ability to find strength in its own values and against the country’s more hardline powers.