The arrival of the Iranian New Year this March was marked by a video message from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei during which he criticised “those in charge” for the “lack of management” of Iran’s internet which has been “let go [of]”. Khamenei’s emphasis on the management of Iran’s internet is particularly notable as it enters a major election year, demonstrating that online information controls remain a top priority for Iranian authorities.
In March, the Supreme Council for Cyberspace held a meeting to discuss a new resolution on child protection, while a sharp boom in the popularity of the live discussion app Clubhouse was followed by unexplained disruptions to its service. These intermittent disruptions came just days after the ICT Minister claimed that there were “no discussions” taking place around the filtering of the app.
Our monthly Network Monitor supplements this report with a technical analysis of network disruptions and internet shutdowns. Take a look at it to get a better sense of how internet disruptions affected Iranian users in March.
Supreme Council for Cyberspace Holds Meeting to Discuss Resolution on ‘Protection of Children and Teenagers in Cyberspace’
On 16 March the Supreme Council for Cyberspace (SCC) met to discuss the resolution on the ‘Protection of Children and Teenagers in Cyberspace’. During the meeting members decided on the ‘categorisation’ of content according to ‘suitability based on age and gender’ as well as content with ‘physical, and cultural characteristics appropriate for children and teenagers’, as well as holding discussion on arrangements for private sector cooperation for creating ‘healthy, safe, and beneficial content and services’. The resolution was also discussed in January this year.
Though initiatives to regulate children and teens’ access to online content are not by themselves problematic, the degree of control by the SCC and other Iranian authorities over content approval is concerning. Allowing different sections of society different levels of access to the internet – including school children and university students – align’s with the state’s broader programme of ‘layered filtering’, which poses a major threat to digital rights in Iran.
Deputy for Cyberspace Affairs at the IRIB: “Promoting Foreign Social Media [Apps] Banned on National Media”
On 4 March Gholamreza Nouri, the Deputy for Cyberspace Affairs at the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) stated that new regulations setting out the terms for the promotion of domestic and foreign platforms on national media had been announced. According to the new regulations ‘naming foreign social media platforms has been banned’ on the broadcaster, whereas domestic platforms ‘can be named’.
The announcement comes following a statement from the National Centre for Cyberspace (NCC) to the IRIB in November last year, which expressed ‘concerns’ around TV programmes asking viewers to engage with their Instagram accounts. One of the main policy objectives of the National Information Network (NIN) project is to encourage the usage of domestic platforms and services over their international counterparts. To support this, various authorities and branches of government have been actively promoting their use. However, these domestic platforms continue to pose major privacy and security risks to users in Iran.
Guardian Council Approves Tax Increase for Telecommunication Operators
On 16 March the Guardian Council approved a 10% tax increase for telecommunication operators, which was proposed by the Majles in the draft budget for the current Iranian calendar year. The approval comes following the Guardian Council’s request for clarifications from the Majles. The increase will come into effect after the expiration of operators’ current licenses.
According to the draft budget, the income made from the increase is set to be allocated to “infrastructural expansion of the same operators on the NIN” under the supervision of the NCC, as well as investment in 5 million high-speed fixed internet ports by the Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI) in order “to produce audio-visual content and support content creation in cyberspace”. The fixed-line internet “should be able to compete with satellite internet”, an issue which has been a cause for concern for ICT policy makers in Iran.
Majles has emphasised that operators are “not to increase internet tariff prices” during the new Iranian calendar year. In February ICT Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi warned that the tax increase will cause internet prices to soar, a position he reiterated in March.
Government Spokesperson: “International Companies can Provide Satellite Internet by Obtaining a Licence”
In a news conference on 16 March Government Spokesperson Ali Rabei stated that “any international company can provide [satellite internet] services after obtaining a licence” and that the government does not view the technology “as a threat”. Rabei’s comments come following a February announcement from SCC Secretary and NCC Head Abolhassan Firouzabadi about the formation of a new working group to tackle issues relating to satellite internet. Firouzabadi made additional comments that the new working group did not wish to restrict the internet, and that there were talks on “cooperation with Russia and China”.
It is unclear what the terms of obtaining a satellite internet licence might entail, and whether options will be open beyond Chinese and Russian companies, especially as satellite internet can provide means for circumventing internet disruptions and shutdowns.
China and Iran Sign Partnership Agreement
On 27 March Iran and China signed a 25-year cooperation agreement. While there is a lack of transparency around the details of the agreement with the text of the agreement yet to be published, a leaked draft in the summer of 2020 revealed some details around the scope of the agreement in connection with Iran’s ICT sector.
A full analysis by Filterwatch on the potential impacts of the agreement on the localisation of Iran’s internet can be found here.
Free Internet Package for Teaching Staff Renewed by ICT Ministry
On 6 March the ICT Ministry announced that the 60GB free internet package for teaching staff across the country was being renewed for another round. It is unclear whether this applies to domestic or international internet. Teaching staff, especially at universities, have been discouraged from using international platforms.
Search Engine by Mobile Telecommunication Company of Iran “In Final Phase”
On 7 March an opening ceremony was held for the “Digital Platform Monitoring Centre” for Hamrah-e-Aval (MCI), which is set to monitor services provided by MCI. These services include the education platform Shad and social media app Rubika. During the ceremony Abolhassan Firouzabadi announced that MCI’s domestic search engine project – known as ‘Magnifier’ (Persian: ذرهبین) had moved into its “final phase”.
Efforts to create a domestic search engine have been underway for a number of years as part of the NIN’s offering of domestic services. However, up until now these efforts have seen limited success in comparison to their international counterparts. However, if a more successful search engine is launched, it could have a significant impact on access to information and the censorship of content on Iran’s internet.
Iran’s ICT Minister: “No Discussions on Filtering Clubhouse” Days Before Disruption to the App
In response to a question during a discussion on Clubhouse on 31 March, Iran’s ICT Minister Azari Jahromi stated he “doubted” that there are plans to filter the platform. He said he had “not heard” of such plans, and that the subject “had not been discussed”.
However, according to users on social media on 9 April, the platform was inaccessible on MTN Irancell, Hamrah-e-Aval (MCI), and the Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI). The reports were later confirmed by the ICT Ministry Spokesperson Jamal Hadian. Hadian subsequently denied knowledge of, or receipt of any judicial orders to block Clubhouse. On 11 April the Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA) issued a letter to the three operators to produce a copy of the judicial order for the filtering of Clubhouse, or in the absence of an order, to resolve the disruptions to Clubhouse within 24 hours. According to a tweet from Hadian the following day on 12 April a complaint was filed against the operators for “ignoring the ICT Ministry’s warning”. Given the disparity of reports from users being able to access ClubHouse on different ISPs, the app’s availability status in Iran is unclear. Filterwatch will monitor and report on any further developments in future issues of the Policy and Network Monitors.
The ICT Ministry and the operators have denied responsibility for the disruptions, or the existence of a judicial order. This allows them to avoid public blame for the implementation of new restrictions, while the process of filtering and restricting services to Iranians becomes more opaque.
Social Media App Rubika Under Investigation for Playing “Unauthorised” Music Video
On 3 March Iranian social media app Rubika was referred to the Committee for Investigating Violations by Iran’s Audiovisual Regulatory Body (or SATRA) for playing a ‘teaser’ from an ‘unauthorised’ music video which was banned by SATRA.
The statement from SATRA appears to refer to the ‘Tehran Tokyo’ video by the US-based Iranian artist known as ‘Sasy’ which has become hugely popular and controversial in Iran. The outcome of the investigation is not clear. The incident offers another example of Iranian authorities’ ability to regulate content on domestic and Iran-based platforms.
Gap Messaging App “Blocked” on a Number of ISPs
According to a tweet on 14 March by Mahdi Anjidani, founder and CEO of Gap Messenger, the messaging app was “blocked” on MTN Irancell and MCI, but users were able to access the service “using circumvention tools”. In an interview with Digiato, Anjidani said that 80% of the issue had been resolved. He added that it was believed that the app was “filtered” however he had not received a response from the ICT Ministry.
According to Anjidani they had recently noticed that Gap users were being charged full international tariff prices instead of the reduced domestic tariffs, which are one third of the international rate. He believes the two issues are “connected” but requires “further answers” from the ICT Ministry.
Buses in the City of Mashhad to “Connect to RighTel WiFi”
On 2 March the mobile network operator Rightel and the Mayor of Mashhad signed an agreement which is set to equip 1,400 inner city buses with RighTel-provided WiFi.
Mashhad has been focusing on ICT-related investments in the city as part of its ongoing ‘Smart City” initiative.
ICT Ministry Provides an Update on the National information Network’s Progress to the National Centre for Cyberspace
In an interview with Mehr News on 8 March Deputy ICT Minister Amir Nazemi revealed that the ICT Ministry had recently provided the National Centre for Cyberspace (NCC) with a new report on the progress of the National Information Network (NIN). He added that the report was under review by the NCC who were also responsible for making announcements on the NIN’’s progress.
According to Nazemi “20% of the NIN’s infrastructure work remains” which he claimed “will be completed by the end of the government’s term” in June 2021. In 2019 the ICT Ministry claimed that 80% of the NIN’s infrastructure had been completed, a claim that was challenged by the SCC.
Communication Regulatory Authority Publishes New Statistics on Internet Users in Iran
On 13 March the CRA published new data on internet users in Iran for the third quarter of the previous Iranian calendar year (22 September – 20 December 2020). According to the data the penetration rate for fixed broadband is sitting at 11.57%, which has not seen a dramatic change since the previous quarter. Meanwhile, Iran’s mobile internet penetration rate has increased by more than one million users since the previous quarter, up to 92.49%.
nternet users in Iran favour mobile services due to a variety of factors, such as the quality of service, affordability, and access to devices. Therefore, internet disruptions to mobile services affect more users than disruptions to home broadband services.
ArvanCloud Services Disrupted Due to a “Cyberattack”
On 14 March ArvanCloud began experiencing “unusual activities” on their IR-THR-AT1 data centre which was identified as a “cyberattack” by the company the following day. As customer data began to be damaged the company reported that access to the data centre was disconnected in order to “prevent the spread of damage” which disrupted customer’s access to their services.
According to ArvanCloud there was “no data leak” as a result of the attack, the aim of which was allegedly the “destruction and deletion of data”. Services are said to have resumed on 18 March with “refunds paid” for the duration of the interruption to customers, a number of which were unable to run their business during the period before the Iranian New Year.
ArvanCloud signed an agreement with Iran’s ICT Ministry in January 2021 to launch the ‘Iran Cloud’ project in a major step towards the localisation of Iran’s infrastructure. In February 2021 the Iran Cloud contract revealed a number of concerning clauses on surveillance and internet shutdowns.