2019 proved to be a defining year in the evolution of the Iranian internet. Small Media started the year by warning about a new policy-making consensus in Iran, and explaining how institutions like the Supreme Council of Cyberspace were threatening to accelerate Iran’s long term localisation agenda. By November, we observed the result of this work: a protracted total internet shutdown and widespread network disruptions hit the global headlines and put questions about Iranian Internet governance at the top of the human rights agenda.
In November, Iranian users found themselves effectively disconnected from the global Internet. This was only possible as a result of the Iranian government’s long-term preparations for such a crisis. The National Information Network project, which started life as a disparate and largely underdeveloped set of ideas about managing citizens’ access to online spaces, is today a potent demonstration of Iranian authorities’ ability to extensively regulate citizens’ digital engagements with the outside world.
After the events of last year, it is crucial that we speak more loudly about the threats posed by the National Information Network to the fundamental human rights of Iran’s citizens. If things continue on the same trajectory as today, Iranian authorities will succeed in completing their localisation agenda in the near future.
In the coming year, Filterwatch will expand its research significantly to focus on areas that we feel have been either overlooked, or that have not yet been subjected to systematic study. Our team has decided to expand on our current work so that we can better meet the new challenges in front of us. In order for our work to stay relevant to Iranian users, and to those around the world fighting for an open and free Internet, we need to expand our field of vision beyond just censorship and privacy, looking to challenges around digital inclusion, and the private sector’s role in upholding digital rights.
We also believe that it is not just the government that must change course in order to safeguard the digital rights of Iranians — giant tech companies, the global community, campaigners, and domestic companies can all play a significant role in the coming years to safeguard the digital rights of Iranians. Indeed, the fact that Iranians haven’t yet been fully disconnected from the global internet is a testament to the work of so many people from these communities.
The National Information Network in 2020 — Success, or Failure?
In November 2019 we saw the longest internet shutdown in Iran’s history. First of all, the network disruption that Iran experienced was not as straightforward as many internet shutdowns around the world — although Iranian authorities cut citizens off from the global internet, domestically hosted information and services continued (almost) as normal. Although some circumvention tools were able to transmit a small trickle of information, their efficacy was rather limited.
In the past, we’ve argued that one of the state’s goals in developing the National Information Network has been to develop its capacity to fully control the flow of the information into and out of the country during periods of political and social unrest. This can be achieved by internet shutdowns in extreme circumstances, but through an array of other measures as well.
The events of November 2019 demonstrated that, although the project has not yet achieved its goal of eliminating the social and financial costs of severing access to the global internet, it has significantly reduced the cost of such events for the Iranian authorities. The NIN’s limited success on this front has been achieved by expanding the provision of domestic services and content, and forcefully encouraging Iranian users and businesses to localise their data hosting and data consumption.
Yet while authorities are much better prepared to cut off access to the global Internet in periods of crisis than before, a prolonged shutdown would still be ruinous economically and socially. This is apparent from the criticisms of key figures in Iran’s digital economy, members of the conservative establishment, and indeed from among the Iranian public.
But regardless of the relative successes or failures of the National Information Network at achieving its objectives, the fact remains that this long-term transformational project has fundamentally altered the way Iranians use the Internet. As digital rights campaigners we must adapt to this new reality.
Understanding the National Information Network — Beyond Censorship
By this, we mean that advocates should refrain from solely assessing the negative impacts of the NIN with reference to shutdown capabilities and content filtering. This approach overlooks the innumerable other ways in which the NIN is changing the internet in Iran, and whose impacts are deeply intersectional along boundaries of class, gender, and ethnicity (among others). It is necessary instead to define an approach that acknowledges the radical expansion of internet access in Iran, while also recognising that as a result of the NIN’s development, the definition of “access” is becoming ever more fragmented.
This is why as well as continuing our existing work to monitor developments in Iran’s ICT policy-making landscape, our team will be delving deeper into questions around the social and economic impacts of the NIN’s development.
We will also interrogate the role of private companies in consolidating the state’s control over online spaces, and offer practical guidance based on international standards, and the experiences of other societies similar to Iran, in order to help Iranian technology companies to uphold their users’ rights online. And we will assess the impacts of Iran’s rapidly growing eGovernment offerings on citizens, being mindful of the ways that it empowers the state, while risking exclusion for huge numbers of digitally disengaged citizens.
The Dangers of Digital Exclusion
As in many other contexts globally, Iran has seen a rapid expansion of internet access over the past decade. The most notable expansion and improvement in quality of internet access came after the election of President Rouhani, and the delivery of huge sums of Investment into the development of technical infrastructure, largely under the umbrella of the NIN project.
Iranian authorities have made use of local tech companies as instruments for data and internet localisation within the framework of the NIN’s development. Over the past few years with examples such as domestic messaging apps, we have seen how some private companies backed by the authorities have played a significant role in the localisation of the internet.
The Iranian government itself has also expanded its eGovernment offerings, meaning that the issue of internet access is no longer simply one of access to information or freedom of expression, but rather of social, political and economic inclusion. We must work to better understand how marginalised groups — such as those on the social and economic peripheries of Iran (including the rural and urban poor, ethnic minority communities, and refugees) are at risk of long-term disenfranchisement and further exclusion in the event that gaps in internet access are not addressed.
There is also the issue of the poor quality of internet access in many marginalised regions. Around the world, digital rights advocates are arguing forcefully for policymakers and businesses to deliver high-quality infrastructure to citizens outside of major urban centres. In Iran, these questions have fallen by the wayside as challenges around filtering and privacy have taken centre stage.
We don’t think this is right. That’s why we are expanding our research and monitoring work to better understand issues around connectivity and service disruption — not just in Iran’s urban centres, but on its margins as well. At the same time, we’ll carry out research to better understand how citizens are able to access VPNs and circumvention tools, and to sidestep Iran’s information control mechanisms.
Iran’s Digital Economy and Internet Localisation
In light of the rapid expansion of internet access and digital services in recent years, the private sector (both within Iran and internationally) are playing an ever-growing role in shaping the rights enjoyed by Iranian citizens. In the past, our work has highlighted how a lack of transparency from global tech companies about their compliance or over-compliance with international sanctions has driven Iranians to use insecure domestic apps and platforms, thereby boosting the state’s efforts to incubate a self-contained ecosystem of digital infrastructure and services.
We have also highlighted how many in Iran’s technology sector have bravely resisted government measures that would have compromised the privacy and the security of their users. We recognise the private sector will continue to play a central role in shaping the rights of citizens in the years to come. In this sense, tech companies can be powerful allies in the battle to resist Iran’s policies of internet localisation, and we will work hard to ensure that advocates engaged in the sector are equipped with the knowledge and tools to do so.
In doing this, we will look to the models provided by organisations such as Ranking Digital Rights and Privacy International to hold tech companies accountable, and to push digital rights priorities onto the agenda of key decision-makers in the digital economy. By adapting their global methodologies to Iran’s unique context, we believe that Iranian tech companies can be empowered to defend the rights of citizens more effectively.
Global Struggles, Local Challenges
As Iranian policy-makers work to isolate the country from the global internet, it is important to recognise that the struggle for digital rights in Iran is deeply connected with similar struggles worldwide. In this sense, the state’s efforts to use the National Information Network to radically localise the internet has placed it on one of the global front lines in the battle for an open, free global internet.
This means that Iran’s digital rights advocates will need to work closely with allies from across the Middle East and the wider world, as well as the international organisations that are engaged in global campaigns for internet freedom.
In 2020 — a decade after the campaign to resist Iranian information controls began — we see that the path towards a free and open Iranian internet is open only if advocates can successfully build international alliances, and learn from shared experiences. In 2019 alone, the #KeepItOn coalition reported that 128 internet shutdown incidents had been recorded globally. The activists resisting information controls around the world — from Sudan, to India, and Venezuela — have many insights that we should learn from.
However, fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with our international allies against shutdowns and internet localisation will not come at the expense of our efforts to monitor and document the challenges that are truly specific to Iran. We will continue to monitor the influence of centres of power outside the elected government, including in the Judiciary and the Iranian Cyber Police (or FATA), and will be expanding the work we started last year under FATAwatch.
We will also continue to amplify the invaluable work done locally by anonymous and often under-appreciated activists from inside Iran on these issues, as they have proven to be most effective campaigners against the state’s oppressive and far-reaching information control policies.
Filterwatch — 2020 and Beyond
Filterwatch has worked hard to adapt to the ever-shifting challenges in Iran over the past few years. Since 2018, our team really started focusing its efforts on bringing accountability to policy-making. That’s why we’ve spent so much time trying to understand the role played by individuals such as ICT Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, and institutions like the Supreme Council for Cyberspace in designing and implementing Iran’s information control policies.
We’ve found that by paying close attention to the policy-making process in Iran, it is possible to develop a clearer picture of Iranian authorities’ long-term strategies for internet localisation. In the next phase of our research and advocacy under Filterwatch, we will continue to clarify these policy-making processes, and to hold policy-makers accountable.
Ultimately, the most valuable Iranian digital rights research not only needs to draw upon the ideas and language of the global digital rights movement, but should also actively contribute to shaping global strategies to defend the free internet. This is where we want to play a larger role — in amplifying the experiences of Iranian internet users, and ensuring that their needs are represented at the global level.
To this end, we’ll be expanding our partnerships, and building collaborations with a diverse host of researchers and advocates. We are fully committed to reflecting this diversity in our publications and advocacy efforts in 2020, and beyond.
We’re also seeking to build new collaborations with organisations that want to participate in this work, and who share our values recognising that the fundamental and universal rights of all peoples cannot be enjoyed without the protection of their digital rights. In this era, free and open societies cannot exist in the absence of a free and open Internet.
As we said earlier, 2019 was a defining year for Iran’s internet for too many of the wrong reasons. It’s our hope that by working together, we can push back against the Iranian government’s aggressive and isolationist policies of internet localisation, and support local digital rights advocates to build a freer, more open internet in Iran.