Iran's government is pursuing measures to increase its control over Internet access, according to a new report from the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Authorities are developing a “National Internet” infrastructure that would allow state agencies to control and access all internet content inside Iran. The state is also filtering mobile phone applications, shutting down Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), and cracking down on online activists. The report’s findings indicate that President Hassan Rouhani’s rhetorical support for internet freedoms has not produced substantive changes in policy, as hardliners continue to pursue stronger control over Internet access. The following are excerpts from the full report.
Censorship and state control over the Internet in Iran is changing: it is becoming more systemic and less detectable, posing an ever-greater threat to Iranian users. Increasingly, the state is focusing on developing the technological infrastructure to effectively control access to the Internet inside Iran and covertly monitor its use. In effect, the state is attempting to create a wall around the Internet, and to serve as its sole gatekeeper, allowing or denying entry at will and gaining full access to the accounts of those whom it allows in.
The intensification of state efforts reflects the fact that the Internet has increasingly emerged as one of the central battlegrounds between hardliners anxious to control all expression and access to information in Iran, and the majority of the population, who voiced their desire for greater openness and freedom with the election of the centrist Hassan Rouhani to the presidency in June 2013.
Keenly aware of the Iranian citizenry’s embrace of the Internet, hardliners ensconced in the judicial, intelligence and security arms of the state and backed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have ensured that the country’s Internet policies remain under their control, immune from electoral politics.
The highest body responsible for overseeing the Internet is the Supreme Cyberspace Council. In charge of general policies, it was formed in 2012 under the direct orders of Khamenei, who views the Internet as a corrupting influence that must be strictly censored and controlled.
The body that monitors cyberspace and is responsible for indexing the websites and mobile applications that are to be blocked by the Telecommunications Ministry, is the Working Group to Determine Instances of Criminal Content on the Internet. Formed in 2009, it works under the supervision of the Prosecutor General, and has 13 members. Six of these are members of the president’s cabinet. The remaining seven are comprised of representatives of the Intelligence Ministry, Guidance Ministry, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) agency, and other state organizations who are vetted and controlled by Khamenei. The members representing the elected administration are thus a permanent minority and not able to have a definitive impact on the decisions of the group.
The Working Group has criminalized content that is supposedly contrary to “public chastity and morality,” “sacred Islamic principles,” “security and public peace,” and “government officials and public institutions.” These highly subjective and potentially all-encompassing determinations have given the hardliners free reign to take sweeping action based on their own interpretations and political proclivities.
The state’s efforts to achieve control over digital communications in Iran have focused on three main areas. First, authorities are developing the technical infrastructure that will give various state agencies full control over Internet access inside Iran. This includes developing the Iranian National Information Network (or “National Internet”), which will allow the state to be the sole “gatekeeper” to the Internet inside Iran; providing government-issued SSL security certificates, which will enable undetected government access into accounts; and developing a national browser and operating system, which will ensure use of the government SSL certificates. Second, authorities are continuing their filtering activities, with a focus on mobile phone applications, which have become an increasingly central platform for Internet use in Iran. Third, hardliners in the Judiciary and the intelligence and security services are strengthening the state’s ability to target and prosecute online activists.
Taken together, the development of the National Internet, the filtering of mobile applications and websites, and the intensified prosecution of online activists, indicate that the state has significantly increased intent—and capability—to stamp out online dissent.
While the June 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani ushered in hopes for a change in the government’s Internet policies, the reality that state control over the Internet is increasing is a sober reminder that key centers of power in Iran remain committed to online repression.
To be sure, Rouhani has rhetorically promoted Internet freedom; it is part and parcel of his overriding policy objective, namely, the economic revitalization and modernization of the country. Moreover, he has had some notable achievements. His unblocking of the WhatsApp mobile application in May 2014, and his granting of licenses to provide 3G and 4G services in the country, were both significant. Indeed, hardliners had long railed against fast Internet speeds (and the access to content not controlled by the State that such speeds would allow), and had relied on the practice of slowing down Internet speeds to the point where its use was rendered effectively impossible.
Nevertheless, such support has translated into relatively few tangible policies, and hardliners in the intelligence, security and judicial branches and supported by Khamenei have been able to pursue their intensified control over the Internet.