Investigations

Passing the Baton: Raisi Continues the Assault on Iran’s Internet

The first months of the Raisi administration, and the progress of a draconian parliamentary bill suggest difficult times ahead for digital rights.

Only a few months into Raisi’s presidency Iranian internet users and activists are on high alert regarding the future of the digital rights in Iran. The new President’s initial appointments and his reactions to an anti-internet bill making its way through parliament have all been observed nervously as many believe his term in office may deliver a defining battle for digital rights and the access to the internet in iran. 

His actions have been observed with acute anxiety, with the Iranian public very much conscious of Raisi’s personally abysmal human rights record, as well as his previous remarks in support of expanded information controls online. On top of this, the rising frequency of internet shutdowns in Iran over the past few years has led many to believe that digital rights in Iran are on a sharp downward trajectory. 

Raisi took office this August in an environment where the rapid increase in use of internet shutdowns and eight years of internet localisation under Rouhani’s administration had left many concerned about the future of Iran’s internet. For many Iranians the internet remains a lifeline out of the political and cultural oppression of the Islamic Republic. It also remains crucial for many to maintain their livelihoods, or to gain access to education. 

Although many Iranians have mastered the art of bypassing content censorship using VPNs after two decades of online filtering, the comprehensive information control strategies implemented under the banner of the National Information Network (NIN) pose a far greater threat. This project was designed and directed by the Supreme Council for Cyberspace (SCC), Iran’s leading internet policy making body, which over the past eight years has spearheaded Iran’s internet localisation program. The NIN was advanced significantly under the Rouhani administration, when vague aspirations for a localised internet were transformed to a set of detailed and cohesive long-term plans, backed with enormous financial investment, and infrastructure development. 

Parliament Against the Internet 

When President Rouhani came into office, a great deal of scrutiny was applied to his appointment of ICT Ministers, and his choices of Mahmoud Vaezi and Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi were both the subject of great attention after Rouhani’s election wins; their appointments were viewed as defining his administration’s approach to internet regulation and digital rights. But Raisi’s appointment of Eisa Zarepour (and his subsequent confirmation by parliament) went by comparatively unnoticed. 

Instead, observers were far more concerned with the continued advancement of a dangerous  parliamentary bill that threatens to further erode internet freedom in Iran – the so-called “User Protection and Core Online Services Bill” (hereafter called the “Online Services Bill”). This bill continued its advance in the final week of Rouhani’s term, and the first week of Raisi’s.

The bill first was produced in the last Iranian parliament in 2018, under the name of “Managing Social Messengers Bill” and its sole purpose appears to have been limiting access to international platforms and formalising the process of blocking access to them. But with the election of a new parliament the bill quickly transformed to a more significant legislative proposal seeking to limit the international internet usage as a whole, reducing the role that ICT Ministry plays in regulating the internet access in Iran, and ending anonymity for internet users in Iran. 

On 28 July it was announced that the bill be discussed and approved under Article 85 of Iranian constitution meaning that a small committee of MPs will have the final say on the fate of the bill without debates involving the whole of Iranian parliament and away from the public records and scrutiny. 

One of the elements of the proposed bill proposed that any popular international platform or service that fails to open a legal office in Iran and operate in accordance with the local law will automatically face being blocked in the country. This of course angered many internet users who viewed the bill as a blatant attempt to block access to Instagram. It is notable to that exact same sentiments were expressed by the Iran’s newly elected president back in 2016 when he was countries attorney general, and said: “If we do not control cyberspace, I have no doubt that it will threaten society’s way of thinking, it’s good deeds, its mental state, and its morality. The whole world knows that these networks need to be controlled – sometimes you hear about the UK, or the EU, or some of the Asian countries filtering these networks. Intelligent filtering is effective, but we must go beyond this. If these networks want to be active in Iran, they should bring their servers inside the country so the Intelligence Ministry can manage them. When you have a highway with no rules, then without a doubt there will be thousands of problems. Now these networks are invading families’ privacy – the complaints that Iran’s Cyber Police (FATA) have to deal with are demonstrations of this. Sometimes some anti-religious and immoral issues are discussed in these networks, but the issue goes beyond this – it’s about national security. There are millions of users, and their management requires a national security-oriented view. Everyone needs to know that social networks should recognize the laws of the Islamic Republic. Naturally, any networks that refuse to follow these laws must be blocked.”

In October it was announced that Reza Taghipour would be chairing the Parliamentary Committee created to review  and pass the bill. Taghipour who is a current member of Iranian parliament and SCC previously served as ICT Minister under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and is known for his extreme opposition to internet freedom, and his aspirations to restrict Iranians’ ability to use the internet to connect with the global community.

From July 2021 the “Online Services Bill” was subject of widespread online protest, due to its clearly stated objective of further localising the Iranian internet, blocking Iranians from accessing international platforms, and further laying the foundations for the introduction of layered filtering. Although the bill has galvanised opposition from many quarters, the reality is that a large proportion of the measures announced in the bill have already been set out as official state policy via SCC resolutions – in some ways, the bill represents a mere legislative formalisation of an existing reality. 

The reason that the bill has whipped up more opposition than the existing SCC resolutions is that it spelled out the state’s intentions so clearly, and cohesively, and so captured the imagination of many ordinary Iranians. To internet users in Iran the bill offers a clear picture of the state’s final imagined destination of a fully localised, and more closed Iranian internet. It was also a clear articulation from MPs – who overwhelmingly backed Raisi in the presidential election – of what they expect the Raisi administration to achieve over the coming years. 

Back to the Ahmadinejad Years 

The anger and protest directed at the bill over the last few months has somewhat overshadowed the appointment of Raisi’s incoming ICT Minister, 41-year-old Eisa Zarepour was confirmed by the Majles on 25 August with 256 votes in favour and 17 vote against, without any meaningful objection or scrutiny. Zarepour, who is taking over from Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, is less media friendly than his prolific predecessor, who can rarely be found away from  Instagram or Twitter (despite the latter being filtered). By comparison, Zarepour does not maintain any personal accounts on any international social media platforms. Although to the amusement of some in October it was announced that a page associated with him was created on Instagram, which claims to have access to him and to pass on concerns directly to him. 

Zarepour was one of the lesser known names among the candidates tipped for the role of ICT Minister, although his background has left very few people shocked by his appointment. A computer engineer with a PhD from the University of New South Wales, Zarepour also worked with Raisi at the Judiciary prior to his Cabinet promotion. 

During his time at the Judiciary, Zarepour served as the Head of Statistics and Information Technology, where his main focus was the digitalisation of the Judiciary’s services. During the Ahmadinejad years, he served as the Head of the Centre for Communication and Digital Media Development at the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Guidance. He is also named as a founding Board Member of the “Society for the Expansion of Clean Cyberspace” (Persian: جمعیت توسعه‌گران فضای مجازی پاک) a think-tank-like organisation which claims to support a “clean, healthy, and safe online space”, and which lists a number of serving SCC members as board members. The organisation has also held numerous events with high-level Iranian policy makers, all calling for the further expansion of information controls. 

The return of Zarepour at the ICT Ministry, and the reemergence of Taghipour as a leading voice on Internet-related issues in the Majles are clear indicators that the custodians of internet censorship from the Ahmadinejad era are truly back in power. However, this time they have inherited a well-established Internet censorship infrastructure, and an effective policy-making body in the form of the SCC. 

Away from Politics 

Away from political appointments, bills, and resolutions, Iranians are experiencing the daily impacts of Iran’s localisation agenda. While more blunt, and brutal forms of internet censorship such as shutdowns can stir immediate attention, these more nuanced forms of information controls are much harder to detect. Over the last few months Iranians have taken to social media to complain about the speed and quality of their Internet services. The decline in reliable connectivity has been so significant that even domestic news outlets have reported on it. 

According to an investigation by the Iranian tech news website Zoomit published on 10 October 2021, the drop in network quality is due to the fact that since Raisi’s arrival in office, the SCC has not issued a license for the Telecommunication Infrastructure Company (TCI)  to increase their purchase of global bandwidth to meet rising domestic demand. As a result, operators have been downgrading the speed and quality of their services in order to continue to be able to meet their customers’ needs. 

In recent months, Iran has also intensified its crackdown on VPNs and circumvention tools. According to local reports, a number of VPN providers which have been operating domestically have had their services terminated. At the same time, reporters at Zoomit have claimed their sources have also seen increasing attempts to block or tamper with certain internet protocols which were used by circumvention tools. This may also be an underlying cause of increasing declining connection quality in Iran. 

In addition, the Iranian establishment has been increasingly relying on police forces to further clamp down on human rights on the internet. The Cyber Police (or FATA), have made no secret of the fact that they are monitoring the online activities of the Iranian internet users, and using peer surveillance to identify users which they view as undesirable. On 19 October the Head of FATA General Vahid Majid, announced that the police were planning to launch a social networking site for those who help the police force on a voluntary basis, to enhance their coordination. Iran’s use of police forces in the monitoring and suppression of freedom of expression online is difficult to detect, but is maintained in the hope of instilling a culture of fear and self-censorship. As we witnessed during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, FATA is regularly used to silence dissenting voices on the internet.

This is Rouhani’s Legacy 

The events of the last few months leave little doubt that the stage has been set in Iran to erode what remains of people’s ability to freely and securely access the world wide web. The clique that was once mocked during the Ahmadinejad years for their unsuccessful attempts to establish a “halal” or “clean” internet are now back in charge, and have been handed control over the sophisticated technical and political infrastructure built under the eight-year Rouhani administration. 

During Ahmadinejad’s eight years in office, this clique lacked a blueprint for the meaningful localisation of the internet in Iran, but since then the SCC has developed a clear roadmap, and after massive financial investments, has already delivered much of the NIN’s core infrastructure.

Even without knowing the content of the proposed bill or the new appointments, the SCC’s numerous resolutions illustrated a clear direction of travel for the next eight years of internet policy in Iran. In effect, the path for Raisi has already been set out clearly by the SCC, Rouhani and his two ICT Ministers, Vaezi and Azari Jahromi. 

Yet there is perhaps one silver lining to the appointment of Ahamdinejad-era officials to implement this roadmap, and to the high-profile storm around the “Online Services Bill”, in that public awareness and understanding of the state’s long-term information control plans is growing. This growing public consciousness  may be the only thing that can stand in the way of the state establishment’s united front against human rights online.   

The next four years will be difficult ones for digital rights advocates. The threats to internet freedom are coming from multiple fronts, including local companies’ ongoing commercial partnerships with state institutions, the accelerating impacts of international sanctions on internet localisation, the SCC’s purposeful, strategic resolutions, and the ongoing enforcement activities of Iran’s Cyber Police. All of these factors together have contributed to the rapid development of Iran’s National Information Network, and have put Iranians’ access to free and secure internet at risk. 

However, it is our hope and expectation that each of these factors will attract greater scrutiny from Iran’s public, its technology sector, and media in the coming years, owing to the clear intent of Raisi and his administration to expand Iran’s information controls apparatus further. This scrutiny, and greater public engagement may yet pose some new challenges to Iran’s ruling class, and prevent them from achieving their vision.