Policy Monitor

Filterwatch // December 2018

The debate over the future of Instagram rumbled on in December, with Iran’s ICT Ministry pushing back against new regulations on the platform. Also this month: updates on rural access, cyber policing, and cryptocurrency regulations.

During the month of December, the Iranian ICT Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi announced a review of the Communication Regulatory Authority’s requirement that alongside their regular data packages, ISPs should offer lower-cost packages that block access to Instagram.

Jahromi’s intervention in this row suggests that the ICT Ministry retains some uncertainty about the long-term viability of the CRA’s new ruling. At the same time, a number of Iranian officials have also suggested direct talks with Instagram could offer solutions that would no longer require the platform to be filtered.

Also, with the end of the Iranian calendar year fast approaching, officials in the ICT Ministry have been loudly boasting about improvements made to national internet infrastructure over the course of the last year — a key pillar of the Rouhani administration’s ICT agenda.

The Iranian Cyber Police (FATA) have also been looking back at the past year, offering warnings about sharp increases in the rate of cybercrime. FATA also announced that it is becoming increasingly dependent on a ‘social-based policing’ model — namely, receiving assistance and information about online legal violations from citizens. According to FATA, over 42,000 citizens have provided FATA with information about ‘online criminals’ since 2014.

Although many of these reports may well have related to genuine violations such as fraud, blackmail or harassment, the notion of widespread online informant networks poses real concerns for freedom of expression online, especially in light of FATA’s past record and existing legal frameworks governing online expression such as the 2010 Computer Crimes Law.

Policy Developments

In Latest eGov Drive, Government Organisations Go Paperless

On 15 December, at a meeting of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC) chaired by President Hassan Rouhani, regulations were passed to standardise the exchange of information between government ministries and governmental organisations.

All governmental organisations covered by Article 67 of Iran’s Sixth Development Plan (all government executive bodies) are required to communicate with each other solely through electronic means. All data exchanges between these official bodies must take place through National Information Exchange (NIX) facilities.

This drive to go “paperless” should be viewed in the context of the Rouhani administration’s wider long-term strategy to place government services at the heart of the National Information Network (SHOMA).

ICT Minister Announces Review of Instagram-less Data Plans

On 25 December, ICT Minister Jahromi announced a review into the policy of requiring internet providers to offer packages without access to Instagram. Earlier in December, a letter from the Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA) was sent to Iranian ISPs, asking them to provide subscription packages that restrict access to Instagram entirely.

Over the last few years, Iran has taken a number of measures to seek to change internet users’ behaviour through price setting. Instagram is currently the most popular non-Iranian social media platform that remains freely accessible in Iran.

On the basis of this announcement, it appears that Jahromi is concerned about the possibility for such a move to drive an increase in the usage of VPNs by young people, who may be given Instagram-free packages by their parents.

‘Managing Social Messengers Bill’ Under Discussion in Majles Committees

On 23 December The ‘Managing Social Messengers Bill’ was discussed in two different parliamentary committees in Iran’s Majles. Both the Mines and Industry Committee and the Culture Committee subjected the bill to discussion.

The bill was drafted by a number of Iranian MPs in late 2018. If a version of the bill is passed by the relevant Majles committees, it will subsequently be referred to the Majles for a final decisive vote.

The bill has faced opposition from those concerned with digital rights in Iran, as well as substantial resistance from the ICT Ministry, which has had no meaningful influence over its development. Small Media previously covered the proposed bill in an in-depth report, which can be found here.

Infrastructure

ICT Ministry Announces Further Expansion of Rural Access

On 11 December the Head of the ICT Ministry’s Office for the Coordination of Provincial Affairs Mehdi Torabian stated that mobile roaming coverage has successfully been extended to villages in Iran.

Torabian also claimed that before the end of Iranian calendar year (March 2019) 6,000 Iranian villages will be connected to Iran’s broadband network. Over the past five years Rouhani’s administration has made the expansion of internet services to rural areas and villages a key pillar of SHOMA.

Telecommunication Infrastructure Company Announces Threefold Growth in National Network Capacity Under Rouhani

On 20 December Sadegh Abbasi Shahkooh, the CEO of Iran’s Telecommunication Infrastructure Company (TIC), announced that 70,000km of fibre optic cables have been installed in 350 cities and villages across Iran since Rouhani’s election, and that this investment has increased the country’s capacity for domestic traffic threefold.

Senior Maraji Endorse ICT Ministry’s Policy Agenda

On 26 December Deputy ICT Minister Hamid Fatahi stated that three senior Iranian Maraji — Makarom Shirazi, Javadi Amoli, and Fazeli Lankarani — had received an update on the current development status of SHOMA. According to Fatahi, the Maraji declared their gratitude to the ICT Ministry for promoting a ‘healthy’ cyberspace, particularly with regard to children’s safety online. In the past, some senior Maraji had expressed concerns about the rapid rate of internet development in Iran.

Former ICT Minister Vaezi rarely supported project suggestions that sought to limit access to the internet (with exception of the failed ‘Smart Filtering’ project to censor Instagram content). However, Jahromi has been more public about his sympathy with conservative concerns about the need for what he calls a “healthier” cyberspace.

Cybersecurity & Cybercrime

Cyber Police Announce ‘Social-Based Policing’ Scheme

On 19 December, Colonel Ramin Pashayi — FATA’s Social Affairs Deputy — announced that FATA is seeking to implement a “social-based policing” model, stating that since FATA’s call for public assistance was announced towards the end of 1392 (March 2014), 42,000 Iranians have provided assistance to FATA. He added that these people have helped with a task such as monitoring cyberspace and implementing preventive measures.

Cyber Police Claims Spike in Cybercrimes

On 5 December 2018 General Kamal Hadiyanfar the Head of FATA police has said that there has been a 71% increase in cybercrimes in Iran in the last 8 months. He said so far this Iranian calendar years has seen 41,000 crimes in cyberspace reported, and he added that he believes the figures may reach 59,000 by end of Iranian calendar year.

Digital Services & the Digital Economy

Iran Prepares to Unveil Policies on Cryptocurrencies

On 4 December Abolhasan Firouzabadi the Secretary of SCC said that authorities would soon present new policy guidelines regarding cryptocurrencies, as soon as they had been discussed and approved by Iran’s Cabinet. Firouzabadi added that the government is currently preparing fresh legislation on this issue. In October 2018 we highlighted the tension between different policymakers in Iran about the future of cryptocurrency.

It is likely that the bill will legalise some forms of cryptocurrencies and their use by citizens and financial institutions. However, currently, the details of the bill remain unclear.

State’s Stake in ICT Sector Projected to Rise to 1.48bn USD

On 27 December the Mehr News Agency announced that in 1398 (March 2019-March 2020) the Iranian government’s income from state-owned entities in the ICT sector is projected to rise to 62.6tn IRR (or 1.48bn USD), according to Iran’s projected budget.

Content, Apps & Social Media Filtering

ICT Ministry Urges Special Measures to Tailor Kids’ Internet Experience

On 31 December Iran’s ICT Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi has said that his Ministry will support online content producers targeting children in Iran. According to Jahromi, this is the area of concern at the highest levels of the Islamic Republic, and he named the Ministries for Justice, Education, the Islamic Promotion Agency, and the Police as partners cooperating in this sector.

Jahromi has repeatedly raised the need to impose special measures to tailor internet access to children and teenagers over the last several months. In the past, state officials have spoken about offering parental control software to allow parents to block content. Currently, SIM cards with parental locks are being trialled as a means to limit access to certain types of content.

SCC Seeks Meeting With Instagram

On 24 December Abolhassan Firouzabadi the Secretary of SCC has said that the council has written to Instagram demanding a meeting. According to the SCC, preliminary communications have taken place, although a formal meeting has not taken place.

Iranian officials have long attempted to negotiate with tech companies over the selective censorship of content, with the government having made several claims about negotiations with Telegram over the course of 2017–18.

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James Marchant

Small Media