Although the Rouhani administration is entering its final months, there seem to be no signs of policy-makers slowing the pace of announcements on Iran’s information controls agenda. This month we observed a worrying number of advancements towards the realisation of Iran’s “layered filtering” initiative, including further announcements about the unblocking of YouTube for certain users, as well as details on a new initiative from the ICT Ministry supporting the development of domestic mobile phones.
Elsewhere, the audio discussion app Clubhouse continued to make headlines, as Iranian authorities disrupted access to the service. No institutions took formal responsibility for these disruptions, although a representative of the National Centre for Cyberspace (NCC) did call for domestic companies to develop a domestic analogue for Clubhouse – a niche that was attempted to be filled by the multi-functional domestic messaging and media app Rubika. Meanwhile, further incentives for the use of Iranian messaging apps were introduced, as COVID-19 vaccine appointments were made available via the Iranian messaging app iGap.
Our monthly Network Monitor supplements this report with a technical analysis of network disruptions and internet shutdowns. Read it to get a better sense of how internet disruptions affected Iranian users in April.
Head of Iran’s Passive Defence Organisation: National Information Network to Give Segregated Access to the Internet
In a TV interview on 2 April, the Head of Iran’s Passive Defence Organisation, Gholamreza Jalali claimed that the National Information Network (NIN) is “not seeking to sever access to the global internet” but instead to grant “tiered access to the internet”.
Jalali did not provide further details about how different levels of internet access would be granted, however his statement seems to be in reference to the system of “layered filtering” which has been in development for a number of years. ICT Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi first hinted at the plans around two years ago, when in a public session in Majles he stated that filtered content should be different for university students, teachers, and journalists.
The practice of granting different levels of access to the global Internet sits at the core of the “layered filtering” model of filtering, which Filterwatch has warned about for some time.
We have observed further evidence of the emergence of this system, with plans for the launch of “legal VPNs” taking clearer shape. Plans for the implementation of “legal VPNs” are currently under review at the National Centre for Cyberspace (NCC), which appear likely to facilitate this layered filtering system.
Allowing certain sections of Iranian society controlled, closely-monitored access to the global Internet while restricting it to the rest of the population is a vision of the tiered, localised internet that Iranian authorities are trying to create.
Working Group to Implement the Supreme Council for Cyberspace Resolution on “Fake News” Established at the National Centre for Cyberspace
On 7 April, the NCC held a meeting to discuss the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC)’s resolution on so-called “fake news”, named the “Document on Preventing and Combating the Dissemination of Misinformation and Fake News and Content in Cyberspace”. Among those in attendance were SCC Secretary Abolhassan Firouzabadi, and ministers including Jahromi.
During the meeting, the execution of the resolution was discussed under three main parameters; prevention and deterrence, coordination between organisations, and legal and judicial support for its implementation. A working group was also established for the further implementation of the resolution.
The resolution, which was approved by the SCC earlier this year, poses a significant threat to freedom of expression online in Iran, in particular in the run-up to the June 2021 presidential elections. Filterwatch’s full analysis of the resolution is available here.
Registration for Phase III Trials for Iranian COVID-19 Vaccine Available via iGap Messenger
During a press conference on 21 April, officials from the state-owned enterprise the “Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order” (EIKO) announced that registration for phase III trials of the Iranian COVID-19 vaccine “COVIran Barakat” had opened via the Iranian messaging app iGap, and a dedicated phone line. The COVIran Barakat vaccine is produced by EIKO, which is under the control of Iran’s Supreme Leader,
In 2018, the iGap messaging app, which was established by Mohammad Rasoul Kazemi, was taken over by a company known as Kian Iranian. The company’s shareholders include Hamrah-e-Aval (MCI), which is owned by the Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI) and Parsian Bank.
While some Iranian messaging apps have struggled to sustain an active user base, they remain an essential component of Iran’s plans for internet localisation. As such, a number of incentives and essential services have been offered via domestic messaging apps in order to attract Iranian users to these apps. Such schemes are alarming, in light of these apps often lacking adequate privacy and security measures, and being vulnerable to government data requests.
YouTube Set to Be “Unblocked” For Journalists and Academics in Another Step Towards Layered Filtering in Iran
On 6 April, Iran’s Prosecutor General Mohammad-Jafar Montazeri announced that YouTube is set to be unblocked for ‘certain sections of society’. YouTube was blocked in Iran in 2010.
A day prior to Montazeri’s comments, Sajad Bonabi, Deputy ICT Minister for HR, Finance, and Support also announced the same news and added that a number of websites such as YouTube would be unblocked for certain groups such as journalists, university students and professors. According to Bonabi, the details relating to the unblocking are to be communicated by the Committee for Determining Instances of Criminal Content (CDICC) and the Prosecutor General.
This marks a very concerning milestone in the segmentation of internet access in Iran. The practice of granting different levels of access to the global Internet sits at the core of the “layered filtering” model of filtering, which Filterwatch has warned about for some time.
We have observed further evidence of the emergence of this system, with plans for the launch of “legal VPNs” taking clearer shape. Allowing certain sections of Iranian society with controlled, closely-monitored access to the global Internet while restricting it to the rest of the population is a vision of the tiered, localised internet that Iranian authorities are trying to create.
Iranian News Website Publishes Parliamentary Budget Committee’s Allocations for Cyber Operations
On 28 April a table was published by the news agency IRNA showing the Parliamentary Budget Committee increasing the Majles-approved budget for IRIB’s “cyber activists” as well as for the Islamic Development Organisation’s “cyber section” for the current Iranian calendar year (March 2021-March 2022).
The table gathered major attention online. A copy of the table was tweeted by Effat Hayati, Youth Affairs Assistant to the ICT Minister, where she joked that she “wished she were a cyber activist for the IRIB”. Her tweet referred to IRIB and the ICT Ministry’s long-standing dispute over their authority over online content development in Iran.
The following day, on 29 April IRNA retracted the table and issued an apology for publishing “false news”. IRNA stated that the table was retracted due to the “carelessness of the journalist in labelling the table’s title” and “an incomplete editing process”.
Clubhouse Remains Inaccessible to Iranians As Authorities Deny Responsibility
Disruptions to the audio-based social media app Clubhouse continued throughout April. On 12 April ICT Ministry Spokesperson Jamal Hadian tweeted that following the ISPs ignoring the warning about “illegal disruption” to Clubhouse, the ICT Ministry submitted a complaint to Tehran’s Prosecutor’s Office against their CEOs.
Following Hadian’s statement, on 22 April the Cabinet issued a resolution to operators which requires that the Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA) communicate any evidence of disruptions to ISPs within 24 hours, and to publish this evidence publicly. According to the resolution, if operators fail to resolve any disruptions within 24 hours, as required by the CRA, the CRA can fine the operator(s) up to 50 billion IRR (11,875,074.00 USD) per day until the issue is resolved. If the issue persists for more than a week, the CRA can look into the temporary suspension or reduction of the length of the operator’s licence. On 1 May however, the country’s Administrative Court issued an interim order blocking the Cabinet’s resolution.
To date, Clubhouse remains blocked on MCI, Irancell, and TCI. No government authorities have yet accepted responsibility for the disruption. The online censorship and filtering process remains deeply opaque, making it very difficult to establish clear accountability for decisions such as this one.
Iranian Social Media App Rubika Adds “Audio Chatrooms” to Its Services
On 25 April the Iranian social media app Rubika announced that it has added a functionality to host “Audio Chatrooms” with a potential capacity of thousands of users. This comes after a surge in the popularity of the audio-based discussion app Clubhouse in Iran, which has been filtered since April. Earlier this month, Amir Khorakian, the Deputy for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs at the National Centre for Cyberspace (NCC) invited the country’s private sector to create a domestic version of Clubhouse.
The multi-purpose app lists as its shareholder the state-owned mobile telecommunication company Hamrah-e-Aval (MCI), which offers tariff-free use of the app to their customers. Clubhouse has also been inaccessible to MCI users from April.
Iranian apps and services lack adequate security measures compared to their international counterparts, especially given the lack of adequate data protection laws in Iran. It should be noted that major privacy concerns remain in relation to Clubhouse itself, particularly in the face of the recent leak of 1.3 million user records from the app.
Iranian users should be cautious about the privacy and security risks associated with such apps. These risks are particularly pronounced in relation to domestic apps, where user data is hosted locally, and vulnerable to being surveilled or requested by state authorities.
Instagram Removes Posts Relating to the Death of IRGC Commander
On 19 April a number of social media users reported that Instagram posts relating to the death of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s (IRGC) Quds Force Deputy Commander Mohammad Hossein-Zadeh Hejazi had been removed for “being [related to] dangerous or violent organisations”.
Instagram has removed content relating to IRGC officials on a number of occasions following their designation as a “terrorist organisation” by the US.
ICT Ministry Announces Support for Domestic Smartphones and Tables
On 20 April the ICT Ministry announced a new drive to support domestic tablet and smartphone production, and called for eligible companies to “take part in the national programme”. The support includes the development of production and testing infrastructure, as well as financial support such as low interest loans.
Domestically produced mobile phones, which often also use home-grown Iranian operating systems and Iranian apps, are an important part of Iran’s internet localisation plans. A series of incentives (including their lower price point) have been designed to encourage Iranian consumers to switch away from foreign Android- and iOS-based devices to domestic products.
ICT Ministry to Distribute Millions of “Student SIM Cards”.
On 6 April Jahromi announced that the ICT Ministry is to distribute 10 million “student SIM cards” as well as “free student internet packages”, aimed at school-aged students. Jahromi did not clarify the types of online content that would be made available through the SIM cards, or whether the free internet packages include access to the domestic or international internet.
In recent months, a number of Iranian ISPs such as Shatel and Irancell have been introducing student internet and SIM cards. Though monitoring the internet use of children is a common concept, some of these services make use of the ICT Ministry’s whitelisted content. Allowing different sections of society different levels of access to the internet as approved by state authorities – including school children and university students – is part of the “layered filtering” system of information controls, which pose a major threat to Iranian internet users’ rights online.
Iranian Users Report Disruption to Accessing Google Services
On around 5 April a number of Iranian users reported an inability to access Google services, which either were previously available to Iranians or were accessible through VPNs. Users also reported challenges accessing platforms that used Google services, such as Spotify. A number of content creators have also complained of lower levels of income from YouTube.
Iranian internet users’ access to a number of international online services had already been limited due to US sanctions. However, no new technology related sanctions have been announced in recents months, and Google has not formally addressed the issue, leaving the reason behind the restrictions unclear. This has left users speculating that the new restrictions are related to Google’s increased accuracy in locating customers.
Filterwatch has already written about tech sanctions and tech giant’s overcompliance with sanctions contributing to Iran’s efforts in furthering the development of the NIN.
Irancell Launches Commercial Cloud Services
On 17 April the telecommunication company Irancell, which lists Iran Electronics Industries – a subsidiary of Iran’s Ministry of Defence as one of its shareholders – announced the launch of its cloud services for commercial use.
Cloud infrastructure services are a vital component of the NIN, allowing domestic services to make use of domestic infrastructure.
Iranian cloud infrastructure projects have made headlines in recent months, following the announcement of the “Iran Cloud” project, which is a collaboration between Iran’s ICT Ministry and private sector companies such as Arvan Cloud. This high-profile case has highlighted the supporting role played by private sector companies in developing the infrastructure to facilitate internet shutdowns and surveillance, and also their ultimate responsibilities to not be complicit in; or to resist these schemes’ implementation.