The publication of this month’s Policy Monitor coincides with the second anniversary of the fuel price protests which broke out in November 2019. What followed was an at least week-long nationwide Internet shutdown and a brutal crackdown on protests, where hundreds were killed at the hands of the authorities, and thousands arrested or forcibly disappeared. While the Iranian government has not been held accountable for its actions, November 2019 nonetheless stands as one of the darkest and bloodiest chapters in the Islamic Republic’s recent history.
Two years on, Iranians’ fundamental freedoms continue to ebb away both online and offline, and with the elevation of Ebrahim Raisi into the presidency, there are few signs of this process slowing down with the rise in localised Internet shutdowns to crackdown on protests, as well as Iran’s Cyber Police (FATA) continuing to make arrests based on arbitrary charges relating to Iranian’s online behaviours.
In October, there were widespread complaints about slow Internet speeds and disruptions to VPN services, raising fears of further closure of online space. However, the biggest headlines arose from yet another cyberattack on Iran’s critical infrastructure, this time crippling payment systems at petrol stations across the country, causing widespread disruption.
Also this month, the Supreme Council for Cyberspace held its second meeting under Raisi; the dangerous “Online Services Bill” continued to make progress in the Majles; and former ICT Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi was summoned to face charges at the Judiciary.
Our monthly Network Monitor supplements this report with the latest details on Internet disruptions and shutdowns in Iran.
Iran’s President Calls for the “Completion of the National Information Network” in Supreme Council for Cyberspace Meeting
On 12 October the Supreme Council for Cyberspace (SCC) held a meeting chaired by President Ebrahim Raisi. During the meeting, Raisi ordered the “completion of the National Information Network “ by the ICT Ministry, a sentiment which has been shared by his recently appointed ICT Minister Eisa Zarepour.
Also during the meeting, policies and regulations surrounding the use of satellite internet services were approved, including the allocation of responsibility for licensing and service operation to the ICT Ministry. Further details around this will be discussed in future SCC sessions, before being finalised in a formal resolution. This development is especially significant with regard to the potential operation of international satellite Internet companies in Iran.
While there has been significant hype surrounding the potential for satellite internet services to provide an avenue for circumventing internet shutdowns and censorship in Iran, it currently appears unlikely that these services will provide solutions, at least in the short-to-medium term (as Filterwatch has previously discussed).
Iran’s New ICT Minister Announces the Appointment of the Secretary to the Steering Council for the Development and the Implementation of the National Information Network
On 18 October, ICT Minister Eisa Zarepour appointed Ali-Asghar Ansari as his Deputy for Planning and Strategic Oversight, as well as the Executive and Secretary to the Development Steering Council for the National Information Network (NIN) at the ICT Ministry.
As part of his appointment, Ansari is responsible for setting up the Steering Council, and monitoring the implementation of the “NIN Macro Planning and Architecture Resolution”, which the SCC passed last year. Since his arrival at the ICT Ministry, Zarepour has emphasised the completion of the NIN as his top priority.
Prior to his appointment, Ansari was the Head of the Centre for Innovation and Expansion of Artificial Intelligence at the Information Technology Research Institute.
Iran’s Slow Internet Blamed on “Lack of International Bandwidth”
Throughout October, Iranian internet users complained of consistently slow connection speeds. While the Head of the Communication Regulatory Authority (CRA), Hossein Fallah Joshghani, blamed the slow speeds on the start of the new academic year and the additional strain on networks, ICT Minister Zarepour claimed that a “lack of investment in the NIN” in previous years is to blame.
However, network operators have a different explanation. According to a number of reports by Iranian outlets, the sluggish internet speeds in recent months are due to a lack of international bandwidth available in the country. This, they claim, is the result of the SCC not issuing a license for the Telecommunication Infrastructure Company (TCI) to increase their purchase of global bandwidth to meet rising domestic demand – a position they have taken since Raisi’s inauguration.
The lack of transparency around the slowdowns from Iranian authorities is a major concern, and has stoked fears around the possibility of further internet restrictions and shutdowns in the future – particularly taken alongside the rapid progress of the “Online Services Bill” in Iran’s parliament.
Parliamentary Joint Special Committee Begins Meetings on the Dangerous “Online Services Bill”
On 10 October the Parliamentary Joint Special Committee responsible for reviewing the bill now titled the “Supporting User’s Rights Online and Core User Services Bill” (hereafter referred to as the “Online Services Bill”) held its first meeting. During the meeting, the Committee appointed its Management Board, as well as electing Reza Taghipour as the Committee Chair. Taghipour, who currently sits as both an MP and SCC member, previously served as ICT Minister under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is known for his staunch opposition to internet freedom, and has a record of advocating for the limitation of Iranians’ access to the free and open global internet..
The Committee held a further meeting on 19 October, although according to its Spokesperson, Lotfollah Siahkali, discussions were still focused on setting out the management of the Committee according to its bylaws. Siahkali stated that the Committee had not yet commenced its work to review the contents and substance of the bill.
On 16 October, Zarepour confirmed that the ICT Ministry had appointed a representative to the Committee who would have “active involvement” in its review process.
Iran’s Audio-Visual Regulatory Authority Calls for Search Engine “Zarebin” to Acquire Licence for Media Content
On 26 October, Iran’s Audio-Visual Regulatory Body, SATRA, published a report on the Iranian platform “Zarebin”, which called for the app to acquire a license from the authority for its media content. While Zarebin is described mainly as a search engine and browser, it also offers music and video streaming features.
SATRA, which operates under the authority of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), recommended that an agreement be signed with Zarebin’s creators, the telecommunication company Hamrah-e-Aval (MCI), in order for the requirements from the platform in relation to its VOD services to be set out.
There have been a series of long-running disputes in connection with the oversight of online audio-visual content and platforms, which Filterwatch previously discussed in-depth. In recent months, SATRA has moved to assert its authority over online content and the operation of online platforms, including another app beliging to MCI, the social media “super app” Rubika.
Iran’s Petrol Station Services Disrupted Following Cyber Attack Affecting its Payment Systems
On 26 October access to a number of petrol stations in Iran were disrupted following a cyberattack, as confirmed by Iranian authorities. The attack disrupted “smart card” payment systems at petrol stations across Iran, which are used for purchasing fuel at subsidised rates. As a result of the disruption, drivers were forced to pay the higher, unsubsidised rates. The next day, on Wednesday 27 October, Iranian authorities claimed that most of the country’s fuel stations were fully operational once again.
The attack caused significant disruptions across the country, prompting reactions from a number of Iranian officials. President Ebrahim Raisi said the attacks were designed to “provoke public anger.” Also commenting on the situation was former Deputy ICT Minister Amir Nazemy, who claimed via a tweet that fuel stations have their own “dedicated networks” and “such connections are not through the Internet.” Nazemy did not elaborate further, and current ICT Ministry officials also did not comment on Nazemy’s tweet. Instead, ICT Minister Eisa Zarepour stated that the protection of the country’s critical infrastructure rests with the Passive Defence Organisation and the Centre for Strategic Management of Security and Information Exchange (also known by its Persian acronym AFTA). Therefore, according to Zarepour, the ICT Ministry “did not play a role” in the incident
In an interview with state TV on 31 October, the Head of the Passive Defence Organisation, Colonel Gholamreza Jalili attributed the attack to the US and Israel, but added that technical information on the attack is “under review”, and the source of the attack has not yet been “definitely determined.” SCC Secretary Abolhassan Firouzabadi also claimed the attack was carried out by a foreign nation, but added that it was too early to determine which country was responsible.
This incident represents the second attack on Iran’s critical infrastructure in recent months, with an earlier attack on the country’s Transport Ministry in July bearing some resemblances to this attack. In the July incident, train station timetable boards displayed the phone number associated with the office of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. During this month’s attack, digital traffic boards were seen displaying various questions and slogans such as “Khamenei, where is our petrol?”
The latest attack was claimed via a Telegram post by a group known as “Predatory Sparrow”, who also claim to be behind the July attacks. The group states that the attacks are “in response to the cyber actions by Tehran’s terrorist regime against the people in the region and around the world.” This group’s claims have not been verified, and remain unconfirmed.
Seventeen People Arrested for “Promoting Western Lifestyles” on Instagram
On 28 October the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) reported that 17 people were arrested by Iran’s Cyber Police (FATA), in the city of Behshahr in Mazandaran province for “promoting western lifestyles, [and] publishing obscene pictures and modelling ads.” The content referred to was deleted and replaced with FATA’s logo, in accordance with a court order.
FATA continues to make arrests based on arbitrary charges which violate Iranians’ rights to freedom of expression. Filterwatch has been documenting FATA’s activities and arrests on a quarterly basis, via our FATAwatch reports.
Iran’s Former ICT Minister Summoned to the Judiciary on Charges of “Publishing Disinformation”
On 13 October, Iran’s former ICT Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi was summoned to the Judiciary where he was informed of charges being laid against him relating to “publishing false information with the aim of disrupting public opinion” as well as “refusal to carry out judicial and government orders”. This was announced by the Judiciary Spokesperson Zabihollah Khodaian, though no specifics were given about which government orders these charges referred to.
Khodaian also added that the charges follow claims made against Azari Jahromi by “a number of people and official authorities”, a case opened against Azari Jahromi in the Culture and Media Court.
Jahromi had previously been summoned to court in January on similar charges, in relation to a 2018 filtering order against Instagram. While it is unclear what political dynamics underpin the latest charges against Jahromi, his ICT Ministry and the Rouhani administration have been criticised by Raisi-era government officials and authorities for their “mismanagement” of Iran’s Internet. This is despite the fact that internet restrictions in fact continued to expand significantly, and the NIN advanced rapidly under Rouhani – leaving a legacy which will see the further erosion of digital rights in Iran for years to come.
Iranian Police Launch New App Offering Virtual Services
On 6 October the Iranian Police launched a new application called “My Police” (Persian: پلیس من) offering police services such as license plate changes, passport requests, as well as the ability to report stolen vehicles. The new app is designed to reduce the need for in-person services due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, during the launch, there was no mention of security and privacy protection features for the app’s users. This is particularly concerning given that Iranian apps, as well as government services, have been subject to numerous hacks and data leaks in recent years.