Policy Monitor

Policy Monitor – June 2021

While the presidential elections were the main news this June, other policy developments also made headlines, including the "Online Services" bill's brief return to parliament.

On 18 June, Iran’s presidential elections delivered a first round victory for Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who won 72.4% of the vote according to Iran’s Interior Ministry. This outcome was no surprise for observers, who warned of unprecedented levels of election engineering, including the disqualification of multiple high-profile challengers by the Guardian Council. Although these interventions achieved their intended objective, they also succeeded in pushing turnout down to its lowest ever levels: at just 48.8% turnout, this presidential election marked the lowest level of participation in any presidential contest in the Islamic Republic’s history. 

Prior to the elections, candidates took part in three televised debates, during which they maintained an effective silence on issues concerning Iran’s internet, and digital rights. But we didn’t really need any more help to understand where the new president-elect stands on these issues: Raisi has already expressed support for “layered filtering” policies that would further restrict free, universal access to information online. Furthermore, his role on the “death committee” that oversaw the mass executions of political prisoners in 1988 gives a strong indication as to his incoming government’s stance on human rights.

With Raisi’s inauguration due to take place in August, it still remains to be seen who will take up posts in his cabinet – including the key role of ICT Minister. However, as we’ve argued previously, his decision here is unlikely to disrupt Iran’s current internet policy trajectory: many of the plans for the future of Iran’s internet (and the National Information Network) have already been set by the Supreme Council for Cyberspace (SCC). These plans underpinned the Rouhani administration’s internet policies, and will likely inform the Raisi administration’s approach as well.

While the elections were the biggest item on the news agenda in June, a number of other significant issues were advanced on Iran’s internet policy-making agenda. These included the (brief) return of the “User Protection and Core Online Services” Bill to Parliament, a short post-election internet shutdown in the city of Yasuj, as well as the SCC’s first meeting in three months. 

Supreme Council for Cyberspace Passes Two New Resolutions In First Meeting Since March 

On 7 June the Supreme Council for Cyberspace (SCC) held its first meeting since March 2021. The meeting was chaired by President Hassan Rouhani. 

During the meeting two resolutions were approved. The first was the “Protection of Children and Teenagers in Cyberspace” resolution, which was under review in the previous SCC meeting. The text of the resolution has not yet been published. According to the SCC’s statement the resolution calls for “all platform and online service and content providers to take action to protect data, and to classify and separate content and services specific to each age group” over the course of a year. Ministries are also required to “provide unbiased information” to the public about the platforms and content that comply with these requirements. 

The second resolution, also approved in the same session, is named “The Vision for Cyberspace on the Horizon of 2031/2032”. The text of this resolution has also not been published. 

With President-Elect Ebrahim Raisi taking office this August, this could mark the final SCC meeting chaired by Rouhani. Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader may also use this opportunity to appoint an entirely new SCC in the coming months. 

Internet Disruptions in the CIty of Yasuj Following Clashes During Local City Council Elections 

On 20 June, mobile internet was cut off on Irancell and MCI for almost an entire day in Yasuj, the provincial capital of Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad Province. The shutdown followed clashes between the local Tamoradi and Tirtaji tribes, which both had candidates standing in the city council elections. Gunshots can be heard in videos from the city circulating on social media. 

Filterwatch’s June Network Monitor has more details on this outage, and other disruptions throughout June.  

Alarming “User Protection and Core Online Services” Bill Returns to Parliament; Review Postponed To Late July 

On 24 June it was announced that the alarming “User Protection and Core Online Services” (UPCOS) Bill had been placed on the parliamentary agenda for consideration, after a request from a number of MPs for the bill to be considered under Article 85 of the Iranian Constitution. Article 85 allows for a bill to be passed into law for a “trial period”, via a parliamentary commission. Final approval will come from a vote in the Majles. The bill must still be approved by the Guardian Council. 

The latest edition of the bill (available on a number if Iranian news agencies)  is effectively an overhauled successor to the proposed “Managing Social Messaging Apps” (MSMA) Bill, which was first introduced in 2018 during the Tenth Parliament. This new UPCOS bill is a combination of the previous drafts of the MSMA bill, also incorporating a set of new articles expanding the scope of the bill beyond social media platforms and messaging apps, to encompass almost all online services and platforms. Some of the key articles of the UPCOS bill include:

  • The expansion of the Supreme Regulatory Commission (which was first created by the SCC in September 2012) to 27 members including five members from the SCC, three MPs, heads of Armed Forces, as well as government ministers;
  • The new body is to be in charge of a number of ICT related policy making and executive decisions, which overlap with the ICT Ministry and SCC’s current roles. Some of which include; registration and issuing and management of operation licences for “core services”, issuing pricing terms for “core services”, issuing terms for ID verification in accordance with the SCC resolution, issuing terms for providing public and e-government services via “core services” 
  • Foreign platforms are required to obtain a license for operating in Iran, and to commit to complying with local laws. If they do not comply, they will be filtered;
  • Iran’s Armed Forces are to be granted control of the country’s internet gateways;
  • Iranians’ personal data is not permitted to leave the country’s network, or be processed outside the country;
  • The bill also calls for the distribution of VPNs to be made illegal, however this is already the case under the Computer Crimes Law (CCL).

The bill gained a significant amount of attention and criticism from digital rights advocates, journalists, the start-up community, the Rouhani admin, and other commentators inside and outside the country for further restricting digital rights, as well as for its potential negative impacts on businesses in Iran. This included criticism from Iran’s Computer Guild, which cast doubt on whether international companies would be willing to comply with the legislation, arguing that this would inevitably lead to them being filtered under this bill. The Computer Guild statement also criticised the introduction of further bureaucracy to Iran’s digital sector, as well as lack of trust shown in those in the ICT sector demonstrated by handing the control of internet gateways to the armed forces over engineers and ICT specialists.  

The bill remained on the parliamentary agenda on 28 June against the wishes of the Majles  Speaker Bagher Ghalibaf, however, the bill was not discussed on the day and instead it is due to be reviewed when Majles reconvenes from recess on 18 July. 

Filterwatch has already warned about the concerning elements of this bill in its previous drafts. In its current format, the UPCOS bill poses a number of significant dangers to digital rights in Iran, while not offering any meaningful data protection measures for Iranians. 

Filterwatch recommends that the bill, and all other measures included in the bill which have already been put in place by the SCC,the Judiciary, and government authorities should be abandoned immediately. Instead Iranian officials should prioritise the safety and security of internet users in Iran by introducing data protection laws that are in line with international standards, as well as removing obstacles to safe and unrestricted access to the global internet for Iranians. 

Head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting: “Iran is Working on its own Internet” 

In a press interview on 29 June the Head of IRIB, Abdulali Ali-Asgari, stated that “there is currently a movement forming against the American internet across the world”. He added that this “has happened in China, and Russia is forming its own internet, and even Europe is shaping its own European internet”. Ali-Asgari was directly appointed to his role as IRIB Head by Iran’s Supreme Leader in 2016. 

According to Ali-Asgari “Iran is also working on plans to create its own internet, similar to these other great powers”. He added that “only weak nations will succumb to the American internet”. 

Asgari’s statement follows claims from Iranian officials – including ICT Minister Azari Jahromi – that a “national internet does not exist”, despite the scale of authorities’ plans for the National Information Network (NIN).

Free Internet for Shad Education App to Be Replaced with Student SIM Cards With Free Internet Packages 

According to Deputy ICT Minister Hossein Fallah Joshghani, data consumed for the education app ‘Shad’ will no longer be freely available from 22 June. From that date, the data tariff for the app is to be calculated at a third of the rate of international traffic, bringing the cost in line with domestic messaging apps. Instead, student SIM cards with free internet packages will be distributed among students in order to enable them to access online educational materials, and allow for free access to Shad and other platforms. 

According to Fallah Joshghani the ICT Ministry will provide further information on the internet package in the future. 

This announcement comes following the Education Ministry’s announcement last month that Shad would remain free-to-use until the end of the current Iranian calendar year. There are risks that this new announcement could restrict student’s access to materials “approved” by Iranian authorities and can create further confusion and complications for students – especially for those living in marginalised and rural communities who are most reliant on free internet access. 

US Government Seizes a Number of Iranian Domains 

According to a statement published by the US Department of Justice on 22 June, the US seized 33 websites “used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU) and three websites operated by Kata’ib Hizballah (KH), in violation of U.S. sanctions.” A list of the seized websites was not provided. 

Both IRTVU – owned by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and KH – an Iraqi paramilitary group – have been designated as a Specially Designated National (SDN) by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which prohibits them from receiving services, including domain and website services, without an OFAC license. According to OFAC, “components of the government of Iran, to include IRTVU and others like it, disguised as news organizations or media outlets, targeted the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations.”

One of the most prominent domains seized by the US government was Iran’s international news channel PressTV’s .com, domain which is now available on a .ir domain.  Visitors to the website were met with a message stating “This Website has been Seized by the US Government.” The Committee to Protect Journalists (CJP) has identified a number of the websites, which confusingly includes Al-Anwar TV, which is “critical of the Iranian establishment”. Some reports suggest that the seizure of Al-Anwar TV can be explained as an attempt to close the pro-Iranian station Al-Anwar 2, which is still functional. 

This is not the first time that Iranian websites have lost their .com domains due to US sanctions. In January 2020 the Iranian news website Fars News and the video streaming platform Aparat lost their .com domains “without prior notice”. Both these websites are now available on .ir domains. 

The statement from the US Department of Justice does not make clear how the seizure of the websites combats “disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations.” The lack of transparency and notice on the seizure of the websites also contributes to the further localisation of Iran’s internet by forcing these websites to move to .ir domains, enhancing Iranian authorities’ argument that domestic services are “more reliable” compared to international services.  

Centre for International Communication Services Launched 

On 16 June the Martyr Fakhrizadeh Centre for International Communication Services was launched by the ICT Ministry, in the Payam Special Economic Zone in Alborz Province. This launch is in line with the SCC resolution on “Macro-Planning and the Architecture of the NIN”, which calls for the further development of domestic infrastructure and core services. 

FATA Warns “Publication of False News on the Elections and Candidates is a Crime” 

On 16 June Colonel Ali Mohammad Rajabi, the Head of Identification and Prevention of Cybercrimes at Iran’s Cyber Police (FATA), stated that “anyone publishing rumours and false news against presidential or local council candidates will be prosecuted”.

This statement came just two days before the presidential elections, which were held on 18 June. FATA has made use of charges of “publication of false information and rumours” in order to arrest users for their online activities. This vague charge is often used to suppress criticism of government authorities, and to restrict freedom of expression online. Our latest FATAwatch report looks at some of the recent trends and arrests by FATA and the judiciary during the first quarter of 2021. 

 

About the author

Melody Kazemi

Filterwatch