A recent Freedom House report on freedom on the Internet (Freedom House 2021)names Iran in second-to-last place, ahead of China. In particular, the planning and expansion of a national Internet is cited as a reason here. But also further Internet controls, such as
Great popularity of social media and instant messaging services
Nevertheless, social media platforms have enjoyed increasing popularity in political discourse since the presidential election in 2009. Online communication and content were an important part of the so-called „Green Movement,“ in which protesters and critics demanded the resignation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Social media were used primarily as a mobilization tool (Article19 2017).
A 2007 study found that Persian was the 9th most-used language within the global blogosphere – despite being only the 22nd most-spoken language worldwide. Yet this digital discussion space was dominated by content on classical poetry or theology, anti-Zionism, LGBT rights, and Persian pop music (Small Media).
Twitter and Facebook played a crucial role during the 2009 protests, leading to the neologism „Twitter revolution.“ After a short time, however, the Iranian government blocked Twitter. To this day, Twitter content is filtered and accessible only through circumvention tools. Surprisingly, important Iranian leaders also maintain Twitter accounts. Among them Ahmadinejad and Khamenei (ibid.).
Instagram has not been blocked so far. The platform had more than 20 million Iranian users in 2017. As the number of users increased, Instagram also attracted the attention of Iranian censorship authorities in 2014. But instead of blocking the site completely, they introduced so-called „smart filters.“ This blocked objectionable social media content through deep packet inspection. The target of the blockades were mostly model agencies or pages of international female celebrities, less political content (ibid.).
After Instagram adopted the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol in 2015, Iranian authorities were unable to use their filters. As a result, well-known Iranian Instagram influencers were arrested in subsequent years for sharing certain un-Islamic content. Officials increasingly branded Instagram as a cultural threat, particularly to prevailing morality and the foundations of the family (ibid.).
Even more popular than Instagram is the messenger service Telegram. In 2017, the service had around 40 million Iranian users. With the large number of users, the engagement of actors such as international news organizations, TV channels and government affiliates also increased. Important Telegram channels are BBC Persian, Ali Khamenei or Hassan Rouhani.
But even as the service was perceived as an important communications platform for Iran’s leadership, distrust of Telegram grew among political leaders (ibid.). Telegram was blocked between December 31, 2017 and January 13, 2018 (Article19 2018).
Throttling, Censorship and Hallal Internet: Steps taken by the Iranian government
The Iranian Republic is one of the few countries in which Internet speed is intentionally throttled. This measure serves to control citizens‘ access to online services. Iran’s Internet speed is among the slowest in the world. For home use, the speed has been throttled to 128kbps for several years, making it almost impossible to use multimedia content (Article19 2017).
As early as 2001, there were a series of regulations designed to force ISPs to apply filtering systems, monitor the actions of Internet users, and remove all anti-government and anti-Islamic websites from their servers. Nearly a quarter of all websites worldwide are blocked or filtered in Iran. Most of this content is on social and political issues, sexual topics, religious expression, or human rights issues (ibid.).
Local alternatives have also been and are being developed. These include „Aparat,“ an Iranian YouTube, and „Face-Nama,“ a local Facebook. The state also initiated a national e-mail service. However, most of these alternatives had too few users, which led to their discontinuation (ibid.).
In 2013 – shortly before the Iranian presidential election – censorship activities were pushed so far that some activists already assumed that the Hallal Internet would be completed as far as possible. This is also referred to as the „National Information Network,“ „SHOMA,“ or „Clean Internet.“ This involves the creation of a national Internet – an isolated and self-contained information platform whose content is mediated by the Iranian government in accordance with political and social norms (Article19 2016).
The first rumors of an Iranian national Internet were heard as early as 2005, and just one year later a plan was presented that envisaged the completion of a national Internet within three years. Due to a lack of funds, however, the project stagnated until 2010, and progress was also very slow in the years that followed. Originally, the national Internet was to go online in 2015, but just one year later the launch was postponed to 2019.(Article19 2016) In May 2019, the government announced a realization rate of 80 percent (Siboni/Abramski/Spair 2020, 36).
The project was to be implemented in three steps (Article 19 2016):
Above all, content that is classified as anti-Islamic has been and continues to be censored. Examples include Wikipedia pages on homosexuality and websites that provide sexual education. A total of around 950 Wikipedia pages were temporarily inaccessible in Iran. Foreign websites that report critically on Iran or alcohol advertising are also blocked in some cases (Thoma 2013 and Rahimi/Gupta 2020).
From 2013, censorship authorities increasingly used filters and blocked foreign websites that were previously accessible via the Tor browser or VPNs. Unregistered VPNs were blocked. Furthermore, the Internet was throttled – a hurdle in accessing websites such as Google or Skype. Up to 1,500 websites were blocked every month (Thoma 2013). To date, the inaccessible websites include, for example, sites associated with the Iranian Kurdish group and those that carry news and stories about Saudi Arabia (Rahimi/Gupta 2020).
Control over this content is possible through a structure in which the main telecommunications infrastructure is in the hands of the government. The Iranian Ministry of Information controls requests from any Internet service provider. New blogs and websites must apply for a license. Beforehand, the content published there is checked for unwanted content. Furthermore, spying tools are used in networks. These can be used to block Internet telephony and emails and identify the users who use the services (ibid.).
Recent developments: Internet shutdowns and further censorship measures
In November 2019, the Iranian government shut down the internet across Iran following protests. Nationwide protests erupted because the government announced a significant increase in gasoline prices overnight. Demonstrators called for a radical upheaval of the political system and constitutional reforms. At least 304 people were killed by Iranian security forces during the five-day protest (Amnesty International).
While, starting with mobile providers, the government shut down the international Internet, the local network remained online. Banking and government services continued. According to Amnesty International, a large amount of evidence of human rights violations during the protests was thus lost. Many Iranians feared arrest and deleted relevant content on their cell phones (ibid.).
In 2020, Abolhassan Firoozabadi, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace, announced that Internet platforms that do not comply with the laws and rules of the Islamic Republic will be censored. Internet content that poses „cultural, social, political and security risks“ will be filtered. Firoozabadi cited China as a model in this regard. Iran was able to win countries such as China and Russia as partners for the expansion and development of the national Internet (Radio Farda).
In the same year, some members of parliament had already introduced a motion aimed at „organizing social media“. According to the motion, foreign messaging apps should be replaced by local ones. Furthermore, the motion included the proposal for fines and imprisonment of operators of social media platforms and for actors who provide VPNs (ibid.).
In July 2021, the Iranian parliament passed a law that further tightens Internet censorship. This was pushed through by the hardliners in the government. Confirmation by the so-called Guardian Council is still required.
According to the law, all Internet users are to be registered and all VPN applications are to be banned. Officially, it is actually about creating national alternatives to well-known social media services and messengers, such as WhatsApp. But critics fear more extensive censorship measures and the blocking of services such as Instagram. Many Iranians conduct business via these services and depend on them for their economic livelihood.
As a result, there were protests across the country. The hashtag #Internetshutdown was trending on Twitter. Various opponents expressed their views under this hashtag. Criticism also came from government circles. In addition to Twitter, Facebook is also banned in Iran. However, many Iranians have so far circumvented this censorship with VPN access. Young people in particular regularly gain access to information this way (Heise Online 2021, Spiegel Online 2021 and Zeit Online 2021).
Protests against the new Internet law were accompanied by protests against water shortages in Khuzestan. As a result, mobile Internet was significantly interrupted by the government in the region – for more than a week (Euronews).
Amnesty International. „A Web of Impunity – The killings Iran’s internet shutdown hid.“ < https://iran-shutdown.amnesty.org/ > (07.08.2021)
Article19. 2016. „Tightening the Net: Internet Security and Censorship in Iran – Part 1: The National Internet Project.“ < https://www.article19.org/data/files/medialibrary/38316/The-National-Internet-AR-KA-final.pdf > (06.08.2021)
Article19. 2017. „Tightening the Net – Part 2: The Soft War and Cyber Tactics in Iran.“ < https://www.article19.org/data/files/medialibrary/38619/Iran_report_part_2-FINAL.pdf > (07.08.2021)
Article19. 2018. „Tightening the Net – Internet controls during and after Iran’s protests.“ < https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/TTN_Internet-controls-during-and-after.pdf > (07.08.2021)
Euronews. 2021. „Iran water crisis: Internet shutdowns observed amid protests in Khuzestan.“ < https://www.euronews.com/2021/07/22/iran-water-crisis-internet-shutdowns-observed-amid-protests-in-khuzestan > (07.08.2021)
Freedom House. 2021. „Freedom on the Net 2020 – The Pandemic’s Digital Shadow.“ < https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2020-10/10122020_FOTN2020_Complete_Report_FINAL.pdf > (06.08.2021)
Heise Online. 2021. „Iran: Kritik an geplanten Gesetzentwurf für Internetzensur.“ < https://www.heise.de/news/Iran-Kritik-am-geplanten-Gesetzentwurf-fuer-Internetzensur-6121928.html > (06.08.2021)
Radio Farda. 2020. „Security Official Threatens More Internet Censorship As Iran Moves Towards Intranet.“ < https://en.radiofarda.com/a/security-official-threatens-more-internet-censorship-as-iran-moves-towards-intranet-/30825156.html > (07.08.2021)
Rahimi, Nick und Gupta, Bidyut. 2020. „A Study of the Landscape of Internet Censorship and Anti-Censorship in Middle East.“ In: EPiC Series in Computing 69, 2020, 60 – 68.
Siboni, Gabi; Abramski, Léa; Sapir, Gal. „Iran’s Activity in Cyberspace: Identifying Patterns and Understanding the Strategy.“ In: Cyber, Intelligence, and Security 4 (1), 2020, 21- 40.
Small Media. „#IranVotes2017 – Analysing the 2017 Iranian Presidential Elections through Telegram, Twitter and Instagram.“ < https://smallmedia.org.uk/media/projects/files/IranVotes2017.pdf > (06.08.2021)
Spiegel Online. 2021. „Iran verschärft Internetzensur.“ < https://www.spiegel.de/netzwelt/web/iran-verschaerft-internetzensur-a-c666aed8-b104-414d-ae16-f648b59add8b > (06.08.2021)
Thoma, Jörg. 2013. „Zensur im Iran – ‚Das Internet muss an die Kette‘.“ < https://www.golem.de/news/zensur-im-iran-das-internet-muss-an-die-kette-1305-99312.html > (06.08.2021)
Zeit Online. 2021. „Wasser, Corona, Internetzensur: Iraner im Protestmodus.“ < https://www.zeit.de/news/2021-07/28/heftige-protestwelle-im-iran-gegen-neues-internet-gesetz > (06.08.2021)