For Iranians, censorship is a fact of life. According to the independent watchdog organization, Freedom House, Iran “remains one of the worst countries in the world for internet freedom”. The Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI) and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance are working alongside native internet service providers (ISPs) to implement content-control software for websites and email. But how has it come to this? In this article you can read about the state of censorship in Iran, the reasons behind it, and the ways around it.
The State of Censorship in Iran
In 2010 the non-profit freedom of the press advocacy group, Reporters Sans Frontières, included Iran on a list of thirteen countries it designated “Enemies of the Internet”. They wrote a letter to the then UN High Commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, to protest Iran’s state-wide censorship of the internet. Which included a passage about the targeting of native free speech activists.
Over the past three years alone, Iranian ISPs have blocked access to 886 domains in total. The vast majority of these restrictions were on Western news media outlets and the websites of human rights groups. These websites join a state blacklist of tens of thousands of similar sites. They are blocked for producing or exhibiting “immoral” or “un-Islamic” content.
Yet despite these sweeping restriction, the internet continues to play a large part in the lives, and politics, of everyday Iranians. As part of President Hassan Rouhani’s 2017 re-election bid, he live-streamed his campaign on Instagram. He did so hoping to reach out to the 41 million internet users, and almost 50 million smartphone owners, in Iran.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, many used the messaging app Telegram to promote and organize the large-scale street protests seen across Iran in late 2017/early 2018. This prompted Rouhani’s Government to block access to both Telegram and Instagram.
In this article, we will be looking at the complicated issue of Iranian internet censorship. You will see how pervasive the current restrictions are and how ordinary Iranians are finding ways to circumvent them.
Why is the Internet in Iran so Heavily Censored?
In 1993 Iran became only the second country in the Middle East to gain access to the internet. Since that time, internet usage in the Republic has significantly increased. An estimated 56 million landline and mobile broadband users were active by September 2017.
Initially the Iranian state only regulated the lightly. However, as internet usage began to rise in popularity the religious and judicial authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran started to take steps to restrict access to content they considered to be “counter-revolutionary”, “anti-Islamic” or “anti-social”. They made efforts to bring censorship of the internet into line with existing restrictions on the media, political affiliations and religious expression.
The theocratic government of Iran enforces censorship to reinforce the internal stability of the state. Access to content that is deemed to threaten the political security of Iran is strictly forbidden. Moreover, the government monitors communications in order to prevent reformist or counter-revolutionary protests.
Iran heavily censors content that contravenes the moral strictures of the state religion, Shia Islam of the Twelver school of thought. Access to pornography, LGBTQ resources or any material that violates Islam’s strictures on iconography and ideology is entirely forbidden.
The application of internet censorship and its enforcement is the responsibility of The Supreme Council of Virtual Space. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei set up this committee in 2012 in order to crack down on free access to content on the internet.
The Committee to Determine Instances of Criminal Content (CDICC) makes the decisions on censorship. In theory, they base their actions on the 2009 Computer Crimes Law (CCL).
In reality, the often competitive nature of Iran’s religious, democratic and judiciary authorities results in a patchwork, politically motivated and often reactionary application of restrictions. An excellent example of this is the brief blocking of Instagram, enacted by hardliners in the Iranian Government during the 2017 election. With this block they wanted to prevent reformist candidate, and now president, Hassan Rouhani from live-streaming his campaign. No government body has officially claimed responsibility for the blocking order.
How is the Internet in Iran Censored?
In 2016 Iran invested $36 million to develop “smart filtering” technology. This was based on existing Chinese software. The software would allow authorities to censor the internet access of its citizens selectively.
Hundreds of thousands of websites are permanently blocked by Iranian ISPs, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google, and WordPress. The popular messaging app Viber was blocked when it was revealed to be owned by Israeli citizens. Moreover, when Telegram launched free encrypted voice calling in April 2017, the Attorney General issued an order to all ISPs to immediately and permanently block the feature.
The ISPs have to comply. Thus, there is no internet connection in the country that will allow citizens to visit the blocked websites.
Before providing access to the internet, ISPs must first register with the both the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI). Iranian ISPs have to implement content-control software. The software restricts access to state-blacklisted websites and monitors email communication. To date, the government shut down at least twelve Iranian ISPs for failing to filter content adequately.
TCI also happens to own Iran’s largest ISP, the Data and Communication Company (DCC). The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is a majority shareholder in the TCI. This ensures that the government has complete control over the vetting process for new ISPs. They also have the power to arbitrarily shut down existing ISPs.
Iran’s largest mobile provider, The Mobile Telecommunication Company of Iran (MCI), is a subsidiary of the TCI. The second largest mobile network, MTN Iran Cell, is 51% owned by Iran Electronics Industries, a company which is a subsidiary of the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics. This allows the military and security forces to monitor the communications and restrict the mobile internet access of, a combined 75 million Iranian mobile users.
Content Ownership and “Speed Throttling”
The Iranian Government also practices “speed throttling”. This restricts access to the internet and messaging apps during times of political uncertainty. Connection speeds were reduced to limit communications during the 2009 and 2013 elections, during the events of the Arab Spring and during the 2017–18 street protests.
Owners must register their websites with the Ministry of Culture. Moreover, platforms inside Iran are subject to regular requests to remove any content deemed unacceptable by the government. News websites and blogs cannot report on domestic news in whatever way they please. Nor can they speak freely in coverage of specific subjects, such as political unrest, economic difficulties, and evidence of corruption. Moreover, subjects like Iran’s nuclear deal or controversial political figures such as former President Mohammad Khatami are also off the table.
Punishment for accessing restricted content is harsh. It generally consists of lengthy prison sentences, substantial fines and restrictions on freedom of movement and expression.
In response to the 2010 Stuxnet attack on its nuclear centrifuges, Iran began the construction of its own national information network, known as SHOMA. Billed as a “halal internet”, SHOMA aims to improve internet speeds. In addition they want to move much of the content available to Iranian browsers onto domestic servers. This allows for a greater range of monitoring and censorship opportunities.
As of January 2017, Iranian ISPs have been ordered to a 50% discount on domestic traffic accessing a list of 500 websites approved by the Communications Regulatory Authority.
How do Iranians Circumvent Internet Censorship?
In the face of increasing attempts by the administrative, judicial and religious authorities of Iran to restrict access to the internet and implement more invasive monitoring of personal communications, Iranian citizens are continually developing new methods to overcome state censorship.
Statistics provided by the Tor Project, which offers anonymous internet access through its Tor web browser, show that the number of users originating in Iran doubled during the protests in December 2017. Messaging app Telegram still is a popular method of communication, even though the government blocks it regularly. Moreover, the government often harasses, arrests, and imprisons group admins due to the content of messages posted on their groups. However, people continue to use the app at an attempt to bypass government censorship.
In addition VPN services continue to be a popular method of bypassing internet restrictions. The Iranian government plays a continuous cat and mouse game with VPN providers. They continually attempt to detect and block the IP addresses of popular VPN providers. Luckily, the VPN providers aren’t likely to back down.
The Iranian government employs Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) software to detect and block traffic from VPN ports. This forces VPN providers to use methods that disguise VPN traffic as regular HTTPS traffic. VPN services that are able to confuse the government software are most likely to be able to provide unfiltered access to the internet in Iran.
As an autocratic theocracy, The Iran Government and its “Supreme Leader” have a vested interest in censoring the internet. This way they restrict content that does not conform to their social, political and religious ideals. The military and revolutionary guards have a controlling stake in the state-owned telecoms monopoly. This causes censorship and the monitoring of communications to be widespread and pervasive.
The technology they use to implement this censorship is increasingly sophisticated. They use intelligent content restrictions to selectively block websites. Moreover, they employ deep packet inspection to combat VPN usage. Iranian citizens caught using censorship circumvention methods face harsh punishment. This punishment can even include significant jail sentences.
Yet despite the risk and restrictions, Iranians continue to employ methods such as VPNs, Telegram and the Tor browser to attempt to bypass government restrictions. The desire for a more freely accessible internet is growing. All this is prompting reformist politicians in Iran to make statements about reducing internet censorship in the future. Who knows? It might even lead to change!