Policy Monitor

Policy Monitor – January 2021

Messaging app Signal joined the long list of international services blocked by Iranian authorities, as the ICT Minister faced another month of scrutiny, this time from the Judiciary.

Iran also experienced an eventful month with fuel shortages, the ongoing pandemic, and a number of internal political conflicts. Iranians endured major electricity blackouts for much of this month, along with widespread occurrences of toxic smog. Both of these problems were blamed on nationwide gas shortages caused by increased winter fuel consumption, and as well as reports that the government has been placing the blame for additional pressure on power grids from Bitcoin mining projects. 

Adding to Iranians’ worries, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei took to Twitter to spread misinformation about the US and UK made COVID-19 vaccines, before ordering a ban on their import. 

Meanwhile, tensions between the ICT Ministry and the Judiciary came to a head, as ICT Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi was called on for questioning. Whether this is a political stunt designed to undermine any of Azari Jahromi’s presidential aspirations, or the start of a sustained campaign against the ICT Minister remains to be seen. 

Despite these tensions, a new cloud infrastructure project was announced in collaboration between the government and the private sector. Lastly, in another blow to digital rights, the messaging app Signal joined the long list of apps and services blocked in Iran, after its popularity surged following announced changes to WhatsApp’s privacy policy. 

Iran and Russia Sign Cybersecurity Agreement 

On 26 January Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov signed a bilateral agreement on cybersecurity cooperation in a meeting in Moscow. According to a statement released by Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the two countries will cooperate in “various fields such as strengthening information security, the fight against crimes committed with the use of information and communications technology, technical and technological assistance, and international cooperation including detection, coordination, and collaboration in regional and international organizations to ensure national and international security.”

The cooperation agreement is significant, and raises further concern about the trajectory of internet freedoms and digital rights in Iran. With both Iran and Russia working to pursue their own localised internets, this agreement could provide further opportunities for the two countries to share technologies and best practices to implement localisation, and engage in online surveillance against citizens. The cooperation agreement also signposts possible coordination of engagements in international internet governance fora, posing an additional threat to the free and open global Internet.  

Filterwatch will provide further updates on this  story as more information becomes available. 

Supreme Council for Cyberspace Meets Following Three Months of Absence 

Iran’s Supreme Council for Cyberspace (SCC) met on 5 January following a three month absence. According to Mehr News, the council discussed two resolutions: ‘Requirements for Prevention and Combating the Publication of False News and Information Online’, as well ‘Protection of Children and Teenagers in Cyberspace’ the text for the two resolutions are currently not publicly available. Majles Speaker Bagher Ghalibaf was absent from the meeting.

Candidate Registration for Iran’s 2021 Presidential Election Moves Online 

Esmaeil Mousavi, Secretary to the Election Office announced on 16 January that candidate registration for the 2021 presidential elections will only take place online via the Interior Ministry website or via a mobile phone application, in compliance with COVID-19 ‘health protocols’. 

There has also been speculation as to whether voting in Iran’s presidential elections could take place online, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While Mousavi said that there is still a ‘possibility’ that voting could take place online, a number of officials have already suggested that this remains unlikely, due to a lack of necessary infrastructure. Filterwatch will continue to monitor developments as we move closer to election day, which is scheduled to take place in June. 

Internet Service Providers Receive 25% Reduction in Bandwidth Prices

On 31 January the Communications Regulatory Commission (CRC) – the policy making arm of the Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA) – passed a resolution confirming a 25% reduction in the cost of bandwidth sold to Internet Service Providers by the Telecommunications Infrastructure Company (TIC). In an interview Deputy ICT Minister and CRC Secretary Hossein Fallah Joshghani stated that the decision was made due to an increase in bandwidth use. 

Asked whether or not this announcement will lead to a reduction of prices for internet users, Joshghani added that such a decision needs to be reviewed by the CRA. 

Majles Moves to Handover Online Content Management to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting 

On 12 January the Parliamentary Budgetary Consolidation Commission passed a resolution allocating the management and oversight of online content to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). The Commission allocated a 20,000 billion IRR (estimated 475,002,960.00 USD) budget for online content creation split between the IRIB and the Islamic Development Organisation’s Culture and Communications Organisation.

The resolution still needs to be debated in a public session in Majles and be approved by the Guardian Council before it becomes law. This is not the first time that plans to hand over content management and oversight being to the IRIB have been raised. The resolution has been met by criticism from the ICT Ministry, increasing tensions between the two institutions. Around three years ago ICT Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi described such a move as an ‘obstacle’ to realising content and services for the National Information Network (NIN). 

City of Mashhad to be Assessed by ITU Smart Sustainable City Indicators 

According to Mehr News on 3 January the city of Mashhad in Razavi Khorasan Province is to be accessed by the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Smart Sustainable City indicators, the first city to be assessed in Iran. According to Alireza Yari, the Head of the Information Technology Research Institute, the indicator data has been collected and the institute and ITU are working together on their assessment. 

While smart cities promise to deploy data-driven technologies to improve public services, they also frequently incorporate technological systems which can be used for the surveillance and monitoring of citizens – an issue of particular concern in politically closed countries. Questions around the violation of citizens’ right to privacy should be carefully considered when assessing the records of smart cities in Iran, particularly given the amount of attention and support given to such initiatives by the central government. 

The ‘Iran Cloud’ Project Launched in Collaboration Between the Government and Private Technology Sector 

On 13 January the ‘Iran Cloud’ project was launched at a ceremony attended by Deputy ICT Minister Amir Nazemi, and two representatives from the private sector. The project marks another major step towards the localisation of Iran’s Internet infrastructure. The Iran Cloud project is a collaboration between the government and a number of Iranian private technology companies including Asia Tech, Fanap, Arvan Cloud, XaaS Cloud and Omid ZharfNegar.

The project is the result of an estimated 24,000 billion IRR investment (an estimated 57,000,355.20 USD), comprising a reported 5,000 billion IRR investment from the government, and 19,000 billion IRR from the private sector.

The expansion of infrastructure capacity and capabilities is key to the realisation of the NIN, which reduces the use of international services in favour of domestic equivalents, granting greater control and access to Iranian authorities. In addition, domestic infrastructure can be used to allow services to remain online during an Internet shutdown, reducing the disruption and cost of shutdowns when they occur. We saw some evidence of this during November 2019, when many domestic applications and services remained accessible during a shutdown event. 

Iran’s ICT Minister is Summoned for Questioning by the Judiciary 

On 20 January a number of Iranian news outlets reported that ICT Minister Azari Jahromi had been summoned by the Attorney General to the Culture and Media Court for questioning in relation to a number of claims made against him. Early reporting suggested that the questioning related to the ICT Ministry refraining from implementing a judicial order to block Instagram. The full list of claims against Azari Jahromi were clarified in a tweet from ICT Ministry spokesperson Jamal Hadian, which included: 

  • Non-compliance with a May 2018 order to block Instagram;
  • Complaints from 432 people from Ahvaz regarding the use of cyberspace in a terrorist attack in Ahvaz Province (which appears to have first been made in 2019);
  • Complaints about an interview with the ICT Minister regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s (IRIB) control over 700 and 800 MHz frequency bands;
  • Complaints about a tweet from Azari Jahromi on [international] bandwidth increases [during the Rouhani administration] among a few other complaints

Azari Jahromi was released on bail while the case is investigated. While some commentators have attributed the move to be the result of political tensions between the judiciary and the Minister ahead of June’s presidential elections where Azari Jahromi is tipped to stand. Filterwatch has written a more in depth analysis of this story which can be found here

Creation of a Working Group for Legal and Judicial Management of Startups at the Judiciary 

In an interview with Peivast magazine on 10 January, Ali Kazemi, the Judiciary’s Deputy for Strategy announced that a working group for managing the legal and judicial affairs of startups has been established, and met for the first time in January. Kazemi stated that the meeting covered the issue of judicial data requests from startups and online platforms, and the rules and regulations that apply to the processing and receipt of such data. Kazemi added that methods for engagement with the working group would soon be communicated to startups. 

 

Messaging App ‘Signal’ Blocked in Iran 

On 25 January a number of outlets reported that users in Iran were experiencing difficulty accessing the messaging app Signal, indicating that the app has been blocked. This took place  after Signal’s website became inaccessible a few days prior.The app was removed from Iranian app stores on 14 January as per an order from the Committee to Determine Instances of Criminal Content (CDICC). 

The CDICC had ordered the blocking of Signal in 2016-17, which saw the app blocked in December 2017. The app was unblocked a short time later without any formal explanation. 

The filtering of Signal is unsurprising in light of Iran’s overarching internet policy objectives to promote and encourage the use of domestic apps over more secure international equivalents. This month’s Network Monitor contains more details on the implementation of Signal’s blocking order.

Iranian Video Streaming Service Aparat Enters Alexa’s Top 50 Websites 

On 31 January it was announced that the Iranian video streaming website Aparat was ranked 48th on Alexa’s top 50 sites on the web. The website was also ranked second after Google for Iranian users, however it should be noted that the use of VPNs can distort these figures.

Aparat has long been held as the Iranian analogue of YouTube, which is blocked in Iran. Domestic platforms typically possess weaker privacy and digital security protections than international platforms, and host their data on domestic data centres under the jurisdiction of Iranian authorities. As a result, they are more susceptible to control and monitoring by Iranian authorities.

The growth of these platforms is integral to the government’s plans for the development of the NIN, and for internet localisation in Iran. Despite some of these platforms being dismissed as inadequate replacements for international platforms, their popularity and user bases have steadily increased over time. As such, concerns around the safety of domestic apps and services must be taken seriously by activists, and Iran’s drive to support the growth of domestic apps should not be dismissed, even when they appear in the short-term to represent a policy failure.

Digikala App Reportedly Blocked by Google Play Store for Collecting and Tracking User Data 

On 21 January the digital security researcher Amir Rashidi reported that the Google Play Store had blocked the Digikala app for collecting user data and tracking users. Digikala’s response to the incident on Twitter attributed the Google Play Store’s decision to ‘a change in their policy’. It states that Digikala was working to bring itself into line with Google’s policies, but did not elaborate further. The Digikala app is also currently unavailable on the Iranian app store Cafe Bazaar for the ‘violation of advertising policies’. 

The app has been ‘disabled’ on Iranian app store Cafe Bazaar 

This is not the first time that the Google Play Store has removed Iranian apps. In March 2020 Iran’s COVID-19 app was removed from the Play Store, although no explanation was provided. As Iran lacks any data protection laws or regulations, the lack of transparency around companies’ data collection, processing and storage processes is of serious concern, as are the limited security features of domestic apps. 

Access to Banking Applications from Outside Iran Blocked 

According to a report by Peivast on 26 January, in a letter from the Tehran Attorney General to the Head of Iran’s Cyber Police (FATA), all banking and e-payment applications are required to block access from international IP addresses from 20 January. Though no explanation was provided in the letter, other requests such as the requirement for the use of one-time passwords for banking applications suggests that these measures were introduced as part of a raft of new security requirements for online banking.

Twitter Removes Tweet by Iran’s Supreme Leader on ‘Contaminated Vaccines’ 

On 9 January Twitter removed a post from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s English-language page for violating the platform’s COVID-19 misinformation policy. In his tweet, Khamenei claimed that US- and UK-produced vaccines would ‘contaminate other nations’. The import of US- and UK-manufactured COVID-19 vaccines has now been banned in Iran.

On 22 January Khamenei’s Persian-language account retweeted an image from @khamenei_site with the caption “revenge is certain” ahead of the first anniversary of the assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani. The image imposed Khamenei’s remarks on an image of a drone approaching a golfer – a representation of the enthusiastic golfer, and former US President Donald Trump.  According to reports from Iranian news outlets the  @khamenei_site was connected to the Supreme Leader’s office. According to Reuters a Twitter spokesperson confirmed that the @khamenei_site account was suspended for a violation of “the company’s platform manipulation and spam policy, specifically against the creation of fake accounts”. The spokesperson also confirmed that account was fake. According to a report by The Associated Press a Twitter spokesperson added that the photo of the drone and the golfer violated the company’s “abusive behavior policy”. 

Following Donald Trump’s permanent ban from Twitter in January, questions have been raised about the other world leaders’ usage of the platform – especially with regard to the leaders of authoritarian regimes. Critics of Twitter’s policies question whether other leaders will receive the same levels of scrutiny for posting conspiracy theories, sharing misinformation, or inciting violence on the platform.

As of the time of writing, Khamenei’s various Twitter accounts remain online. Twitter was blocked in Iran in 2010 and is only accessible by the public via VPNs. 

 

About the author

Melody Kazemi

Melody Kazemi

Filterwatch