Internet Censorship in Iran. When and Why?

Countries Mar 17, 2021

The Iranian authorities' Internet censorship system is considered one of the most stringent in the world. The republic's leadership has consistently pursued the policy of gradually limiting user access to an increasing number of sites for more than ten years. During this time, a general limitation of the maximum speed of Internet access (128 Kbps) was established in the country, and access to the Internet from an Internet cafe became possible only subject to the provision of personal information - the owners of cafes were obliged to write down the name, surname, father's name, date visit and passport details of each visitor. In addition, administrators of public access points were instructed to record and store information about all sites visited by users. Within six months, this information can be requested by Iranian law enforcement agencies.

As the secretary of the Iranian Cyberspace Council explained, the use of personal information is necessary to configure the content filtering system more accurately. The level of filtering of the Internet for businessmen and scientists should be different from the level of filtering for youth and students. One of the latest innovations is the ban on the use of virtual private networks (VPNs), with the help of Iranians having long bypassed government-imposed bans and bans.

The Iranian authorities have taken steps aimed at tight regulation of the Internet until recently. In March 2012, by order of the supreme leader and spiritual leader Ali Khamenei (whose position is higher than even the presidential one according to the constitution), the so-called Supreme Council of Cyberspace was created - a special government agency for overseeing the Internet. The council includes representatives of the highest military and political circles of Iran. The new structure was subordinated to three more departments involved in censoring the network: the Committee for Determining Cases of Criminal Content, the Cyber Police of Iran (FATA), and the Cybersecurity Department of the Revolutionary Guard. The council was chaired by the then President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

From that time until the spring of 2013, the idea of creating its own "clean Internet" was widely discussed in Iran. As part of the concept, invented by Ali Agha-Mohammadi, Iran's Deputy Vice President for Economic Affairs, the country planned to create local analogs of all major Internet services, from email to video hosting of which would meet all the norms of Islamic culture. The concept, however, was never implemented - everything was limited to words only.

Here are some apps and services blocked in Iran:

Social sites
• Facebook
• Twitter
• TikTok
• Tumblr

Streaming sites
• YouTube
• YouTube music
• SoundCloud
• Twitch
• Pandora
• Vimeo

• Fox News
• The Verge
• CBS News
• Medium

• Telegram
• Facebook Messenger
• Discord

• Netflix

Torrent Indexer
• KickAss Torrents
• TorrentFreak
• Torrentz2

• XVideos
• XHamster
• PornHub

Iran Creates Analogs of Popular Internet Services
Representatives of law enforcement agencies and religious leaders, in whose hands the mechanisms of control over Internet traffic are mainly concentrated, all this time actively obstructed even the most moderate proposals to weaken Internet censorship somehow. Military, police, and spiritual leaders, grouping around the figure of the supreme ruler Ali Khamenei, showed in every possible way that they did not intend to make concessions - Iranian conservatives perceive the open and free Internet as a serious threat to the country's Islamic culture and military security.

Simultaneously, the idea of total filtering of all Internet content was popular among the conservative elite and ordinary "executors" working in law enforcement agencies and dealing with cybersecurity issues. For example, the head of the cyber police department of the Semnan Province, Ali Mirahmadi, said that social networks in general and Facebook, in particular, are nothing more than a weapon of the enemy aimed at the Islamic republic. Mirahmadi called Facebook "the Trojan horse of the Zionist Mafia, controlled by the Western intelligence services."

However, not all representatives of the Iranian political elite share the ideals of the "halal Internet" (as the politicians of other Islamic countries often call the Iranian concept of Internet regulation), reliably protected from "dangerous" content. Recently, the voices of those who advocate weakening Internet censorship have been heard more and more.

The situation gradually began to change after the June 2013 presidential elections in Iran, which were won by the moderate reformer Hassan Rouhani. The administration of President Rouhani turned out (at least in words) to be much more liberal than the people who worked with Ahmadinejad. Under Rouhani, they first started talking about the fact that Internet censorship in Iran in the form in which it exists now is not so necessary.

For example, according to the information of the Associated Press, in September 2013, on behalf of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Facebook accounts were opened by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and about 15 other members of the cabinet of ministers. Rouhani's own page appeared on Twitter. However, reports of ministerial accounts were soon partially refuted. Iranian Communications Minister and several other officials rushed to assure local media that they had nothing to do with the pages. Nevertheless, the very fact of such information's appearance indicates a certain trend in the Iranian approach to Internet censorship - two or three years ago; it was simply impossible to imagine such a situation. Several ministers had Facebook pages, and ordinary Iranians could only learn from newspaper reports - the social network was still inaccessible to ordinary users.

There are also supporters of partial or complete abolition of censorship on the Internet among the Iranian parliament (Mejlis). For example, the former deputy head of the parliamentary committee on budget planning, Gholamreza Tajgardoon, recently said in an interview that any means of communication between people is positive in itself and should not be limited. Tajgardoon's position was also supported by another member of the budget committee, Ismail Jalili, who urged to view social media as a source of great opportunities and not as a threat.

The idea of weakening Internet censorship in Iran has recently found supporters even among those engaged in filtering the Web. For example, a member of the Iranian cyber police Mohammed Reza Agamiri said that the social network Facebook could be unblocked "under certain conditions." According to Agamiri, access to Facebook can be opened if a way can be found to separate "dangerous" content from "useful". Iranian Prosecutor with him, suggesting that if Facebook manages to "cleanse" of all "criminal" content, there will be no need to block the entire site.

Even though the discussion about the need for Internet censorship in the country has intensified recently, it is almost impossible to understand how close Iran, under the leadership of Rouhani, is too real steps to get rid of restrictions. Iranian politicians (both reformist and conservative) in their decisions are still more dependent on the will of the ayatollahs than on their own parties, or even more so, voters. As long as this is the case, 45 million Iranians will continue to use the Internet that they have - with a speed limit of 128 Kbps, blocked access to the most popular sites and social networks, and almost total monitoring of the contents of sent files.

At the moment, Iran does not have access to services such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, VKontakte, Wikipedia; access to Google periodically disappears. Every year in the Islamic Republic, several sites with political and other content, as well as many news and trading platforms, are disconnected. But Instagram and Telegram work in Iran! And the Iranians use them very actively. So, it is not difficult to find an active blogger from Iran on Instagram, and almost every Iranian has Telegram in his smartphone.

By the way, it was through Telegram that the protest in December 2017 was coordinated, when the public demanded the resignation of Ali Khamenei, because the rest of the messengers are simply prohibited. It is worth noting that many materials from the demonstrations periodically appear on YouTube and Twitter. Although there is no access to these services in Iran, the authorities of the republic demand that all materials be removed. But both the YouTube administration and Twitter (just like in 2009) adhere to their own policy and do not remove the materials, explaining that the official media do not cover the protests in any way.

Of course, not everything is so dark and terrible. In addition to loopholes in the Internet censorship system, there are also quite legal ways to access the World Wide Web. For example, relatively recently, a similar system Yooz was created to replace the Google search engine. It is difficult to predict how the system of restrictions on cyberspace in Iran will develop further. One can only hope that soon the Iranians will be able to freely use one of the main achievements of civilization - the Internet.