Policy Monitor

Policy Monitor – May 2021

With presidential elections coming up in June, free internet packages are announced for users and new regulations set out rules for campaigning on domestic platforms.

May marks the final weeks of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency before the election to find his replacement takes place. As the June 18 presidential elections come into sharper focus, online spaces are more important and more contentious than ever. With in-person campaigning and rallies at a minimum in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, online campaigning has become even more crucial for the field of hopefuls. In response, ICT Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi announced a free, month-long internet package for all users in the run-up to the election, while the Audiovisual Regulatory Authority (SATRA) issued a series of new election guidelines for online platforms.

For the mostly conservative, Guardian Council-approved candidates in the running for the presidency, domestic platforms and state media outlets are likely to play a major role in their campaigns; the domestic social media app Rubika has announced its “readiness” for hosting presidential candidates. The current frontrunner in the campaign appears to be Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s hardline Chief Justice, who played a central role in ordering the massacre of thousands of political prisoners in Iran in 1988.

Restrictions to the internet and coverage of the elections are likely, with journalists already being “harassed” or “receiving judicial warnings” according to the International Federation of Journalists. Our May edition of the Policy Monitor covers the developments around Iran’s internet, which is supplemented by the Network Monitor which provides the latest on internet disruptions and internet connectivity in Iran.

Supreme Council for Cyberspace Has not Held a Meeting Since March

The Supreme Council for Cyberspace (SCC) has not held any meetings since March 2021, where they discussed the Protection of Children and Teenagers in Cyberspace Resolution. According to SCC member Mohammad Hassan Entezari, a meeting is expected to take place in early June to approve the resolution.

With Iran’s presidential elections set to be held on 18 June, this could be the final meeting of the body chaired by President Rouhani.

“Credible Online Identity Verification System” Launched

On 15 May the Valid Online Identity Verification System (SAMAVA) was launched by the Information Technology Organisation (ITO), an organisation under the control of the ICT Ministry. Deputy ICT Minister Amir Nazemi described SAMAVA as a government system to verify an individual’s identities, in order to grant them access to any services – whether e-governmental services or private ones – which require ID verification.

The system operates by asking users to enter their national ID number and mobile phone number, and to submit a photo which is verified against records held by the National Organisation for Civil Registration. According to SAMAVA’s Project Manager Naser Esmaeili, the system’s purpose is to “prevent data leaks”, such as the recent Mellat Bank leak. Esmaeili said that one advantage of SAMAVA is that “ID information from users is not stored in a single organisation”, reducing the risk of leaks.

According to the ITO, the creation of SAMAVA is in accordance with Article 4.2.3 of the SCC’s Valid Identity in Cyberspace Resolution, which was approved on 31 August 2019.

Shad Education App to be Available with Free Internet “Until the End of the Current Iranain Year”

On 19 May, the Education Ministry announced that data used for the education app Shad would be free until the end of the current Iranian year, meaning that students would not incur any fees for using the app.

The Majles introduced a bill in December 2020 calling for the removal of data costs for the Shad app. This bill was introduced despite previous ICT Ministry claims that users would not be charged for using the education app. Iran’s digital access gap – particularly pronounced in marginalised and rural communities – has caused real challenges for some students in accessing the national remote learning app, which was introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The suicide of at least one student has been  attributed to their inability to access these online education resources and device.

Cryptocurrency Mining “Banned” for Four Months Amid a Number of Power Cuts

On 26 May Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced a ban on energy intensive cryptocurrency mining until 22 September, after Iranians experienced a number of blackouts which authorities attributed to “cryptocurrency mining, drought, and increased demand during the summer months”.

The power cuts have also intermittently affected internet connectivity, as explained in this month’s edition of Network Monitor.

Free Internet Package Ahead of Iran’s Presidential Election

On 24 May ICT Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi announced that a free, one-month 7GB mobile internet package would be made available to all Iranians ahead of the June presidential elections. This package can be claimed via a dedicated website, ictgifts.ir, using national ID number. Azari-Jahromi added: “Don’t ask if it is [just] for the domestic internet, the internet is an international network.”

He stated that this free internet package was announced following recommendations from the National COVID Headquarters that election campaigning should take place online in the interest of public health.

Judicial Order for the FIltering of Instagram “Revoked”

On 19 May a number of letters signed by Deputy Chief of Tehran’s Justice Department Javad Javidnia were shared on Twitter. The letters were addressed to ISPs including the Telecommunication Infrastructure Company (TIC), Hamrah-e-Aval (MCI), Irancell, and Rightel, and ordered the filtering of Instagram, Google Play Store, VPNs and other circumvention tools.

According to the Judiciary’s press office, the order was “revoked within the hour” by the Head of Tehran’s Justice Department. The press office stated that the letter was an “administrative violation” and “beyond the duties and powers” of the letter’s author, who would be “subject to disciplinary action.” Javidinia previously held the position of the Judiciary’s Deputy for Cyber Affairs, and was a critic of Instagram’s continued availability in Iran.

Just a day prior to the letter being shared online, SCC Secretary Abolhassan Firouzabadi commented that as far as he is aware “there are no plans to filter Instagram” and that “the majority are against the filtering of Instagram.”

Speculation around the filtering of Instagram – one of the few remaining international social media platforms not filtered in Iran – has been ongoing for some time. However, with the presidential elections taking  place in June, there are growing concerns that authorities could impose further restrictions on online platforms.

The storm sparked by Javidnia’s letter highlights the continued opacity of Iran’s filtering regime, and the disconnect between different governmental organisations. Notably, Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi is currently a frontrunner in the presidential race. As such, the Judiciary’s revocation of this order could also be interpreted as a political maneuver to win support among voters concerned about the further expansion of internet censorship in Iran.

Users Report Messaging App iGap Required to Access University Platform

This month, a number of students at Islamic Azad University stated on Twitter that they were “forced to download the Iranian messaging app iGap” in order to receive a verification code to log in to their university’s online portal. Previously, students were given the choice of receiving a verification code via iGap, or waiting for two minutes and entering a CAPTCHA code. According to a number of students, this second option is no longer available.

Students have also reported receiving text messages asking them to download iGap “in order to gain access to details of their student files”, which appear to have been sent by the university. However, university officials have denied knowledge of the texts, which they state have been sent by iGap in order to encourage users to download the app. It is not clear how iGap obtained these students’ personal details.

While some Iranian messaging apps have struggled to sustain an active user base, they remain an essential component of Iran’s long-term internet localisation plans. As such, a number of incentives and essential services have been offered via domestic messaging apps to attract Iranian users. Last month, a service was rolled out to enable people to book their COVID-19 vaccine via iGap. Given that these apps often lack adequate privacy and security protections, and are vulnerable to government data requests, such developments are a source of real concern.

Iran’s Audio-Visual Regulatory Body Sets Rules for Presidential Election Campaigns

In an interview with Mehr News on 21 May Zahra Roshandel, the General Manager for Regulation at the Audio-Visual Regulatory Organisation (SATRA) shared details of regulations for election activities ahead of the presidential election in June.

According to Roshandel, the regulations communicated to platforms hosting user-generated content (such as social media platforms) include:

  • They are required to create an “official page” for candidates should they request it. The page or channel should bear a verification mark;

  • Election content and messages should be labeled with an “election content sign” so that users are able to “easily identify” election-related content;

  • Platforms should identify and remove “bots spreading false information”, and users should have the ability to report such content as “electoral violations” on the platform;

  • Candidates should be able to report content as “suspicious” if they believe it contains incorrect information about them. Additionally, election ads should also state the origin source of the advert;

  • Platforms should be impartial, should adhere to national election laws, and are required to remove any content that breaks these laws;

  • The sale or sharing of user data held by platforms, with advertisers or other groups, is prohibited.

 

Iran’s Audiovisual Regulatory Authority Orders the Removal of Interview with Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from Domestic Video Streaming Platform Aparat

According to a tweet on 11 May by the Iranian video streaming platform Aparat, Iran’s Audiovisual Regulatory Authority (SATRA) – which is under the control of the state broadcaster  Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) –  ordered the removal of an interview with former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by political analyst Ali Alizadeh. Aparat’s tweet stated: “Unfortunately, there are still conflicting policies in cyberspace and once again domestic services have been the target of criticism for [violating] users’ rights, and [yet] no other responsible [party] has been heard”. The reason for the removal of the video was not stated.

The removal of the interview was met with widespread criticism and public backlash. In response in an interview with Digiato, a SATRA Deputy, Vahid Farahmand, called the removal request by SATRA “an error by [SATRA’s] supervisor” and a “gap in the communication process with Aparat.” He added that SATRA’s senior management decided that the video “should not have been subject to a removal order”, as similar content is available on Aparat and other platforms. According to Farahmand there is “no ban on the republication of the video” which has been communicated to Aparat, and SATRA is “working on correcting its weaknesses”.

Iranian Social Media App Rubika Announces “Readiness to Host Presidential Campaigns”

On 26 May the Iranian social media app Rubika announced its readiness to host presidential candidates on the platform, to support their campaigning efforts. Last month, following the filtering of Clubhouse, Rubika announced that it had added “audio-room” capabilities to the app.

Iranian apps and services lack adequate security measures compared to their international counterparts, especially in light of Iran’s lack of meaningful data protection laws. Users should remain extremely cautious about the privacy and security risks associated with domestic apps, where user data is hosted locally and vulnerable to being surveilled or requisitioned by state authorities.

Statistics From Iran’s Communication Regulatory Authority Shows Slow Growth for Fixed Internet

According to figures released by the Communication Regulatory Authority (CRA) in early May for the final quarter of the Iranian calendar year 1399 (21 December 2020 – 20 March 2021)  fixed internet penetration rates showed a small increase in users, from 11.64% in the third quarter of 1399 to 12.61% in the final quarter.  Meanwhile, mobile internet penetration rates increased to 100.19% in the final quarter of 1399. These figures demonstrate that the vast majority of Iranians continue to rely on mobile networks for connecting to the internet, rather than landline connections.

Iran’s First International Internet Exchange Point Launched

In a tweet on 29 May ICT Minister Azari Jahromi announced the launch of Iran’s first international Internet Exchange Point (IXP) in the “Payam” Special Economic Zone located in Karaj County, just outside Tehran. He added that this is “the most important infrastructure and the first step for de-monopolising the internet entering the country.” Based on Filterwatch research on a number of ASes the The Telecommunication Infrastructure Company (TIC) is still controlling the international gateways in the country.

Personal Data from “30 Million Mellat Bank Customers Leaked Online”

According to various social media reports on 14 May, data from “30 million Mellat Bank users” was leaked online, including personal information such as names, national ID numbers, phone numbers and addresses. The news was confirmed by Behnam Valizadeh, the ITO’s e-Government Deputy, who commented that the leak was “caused by gathering personal information on the organisation’s systems.”

On 16 May Mellat Bank released a statement stating that the “data leak claims are being investigated by the bank’s specialist and technical teams” and that “as soon as more information becomes available, full details will be communicated.” Given the large number of data points and the sensitivity of the information leaked, Mellat Bank has not clarified the steps it has taken to protect or inform its customers about the incident.

Individual Arrested for “Disrupting Public Opinion” By Publishing Video “Showing Lack of Hygiene Products” at Bandar Abbas Port Loading Terminal

On 6 May it was reported that an individual was arrested in Bandar Abbas Port in Hormozgan Province in relation to a video filmed and published on social media earlier this year. The video, filmed at the loading terminal at the port of Bandar Abbas, showed a “lack of hygiene products”.

Iranian authorities, including the Cyber Police (FATA), have made a number of arrests in relation to online criticisms of the government’s handling of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Our FATAwatch series has more details on these arrests.

 

About the author

Melody Kazemi

Filterwatch