Move Cuts Rouhani Administration Out of Decisions on Internet Access
September 14, 2015—Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has announced that authority for Internet policy will be exclusively centered in the country’s Supreme Cyberspace Council, a move that will consolidate decision-making power over the Internet into an organization the hardline cleric controls.
Previously there were multiple state bodies involved in Internet policy, allowing for diverse power centers—including those controlled by the more moderate Rouhani administration—to weigh in on Internet decisions.
If implemented, the decision bodes poorly for Internet freedom in Iran: the Council, while chaired by President Rouhani, reports directly to Khamenei and a majority of its members are appointed by the Supreme Leader, who believes the Internet is “used by the enemy to target Islamic thinking.”
“This decision will give a free pass to security agencies to block any site—or go after any individual—that challenges the official line,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
In an announcement on Khamenei’s website on September 5, 2015 re-appointing the members of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace for another four-year term, the Supreme Leader asked for the “dissolution of all Supreme Councils [state organizations] approved in the past, which are parallel to this Council, in order to strengthen its extra-branch and central position, and to transfer those other Councils’ responsibilities to the Supreme Cyberspace Council.”
In other words, any other organization involved in Internet policy is to be dissolved and all Internet decision-making power concentrated in the Supreme Council. The decision will effectively cut the Rouhani administration out of Internet policy. Its Ministry of Information and Communications has played an important role trying to advance Internet access in Iran.
“This decision has stripped Rouhani of his ability to affect policy in an area that is central to Iran’s 80 million citizens,” said Ghaemi. “The question is, how will Rouhani respond, if at all, to this institutional sidelining?”
The Supreme Council of Cyberspace directs the filtering of the Internet in Iran and determines which websites should be blocked. At present, Iran is second only to China in the number of sites it has blocked.
Membership of the Council is comprised of individuals directly appointed by Khamenei and representatives of designated government ministries and organizations. The combined number of individuals who are directly appointed by Khamenei, and institutional heads who are appointed by Khamenei to their respective organizations, gives the Supreme Leader an unbreachable majority on the Supreme Council.
In the re-appointment letter on Khamenei’s website, he also announced three new members to the Supreme Cyberspace Council, of which two, Reza Taghipour and Seyed Ezatollah Zarghami have been designated by both the US and the EU as human rights violators and sanctioned as such.
The decision to consolidate Internet policy making power in the Supreme Cyberspace Council takes place within the context of a growing struggle between hardliners who want to severely restrict Internet access, and moderates who argue greater Internet access is necessary for modern commercial, academic, and professional activities.
Since the election of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency in 2013, his administration has at times pushed back against hardliners. For example, on June 18, 2014, Rouhani refused to implement orders by the Working Group to Determine Instances of Criminal Content, another state body that has been involved in Internet filtering decisions and which works under the Supreme Council, to block the instant messaging service WhatsApp.
A significant area of contention has also been over the nature of Internet filtering. Hardliners have consistently pushed for the blanket blocking of full sites of which they disapprove. The Rouhani administration, in a move tech experts have noted was a bit disingenuous given its technical unfeasibility, argued that a more selective “smart filtering,” in which only objectionable content is blocked, would be sufficient to weed out offensive material, allowing sites to otherwise operate.
It seems the ruse, however, has been realized. In an interview on September 6, 2015, one day after Khamenei’s letter was posted, with Fars News Agency, Abdolsamad Khorramabadi, the Deputy Prosecutor for Cyberspace Affairs said, “Despite widespread propaganda by the Ministry of Communications” their smart filtering of content on Instagram “was unable to keep the huge flood of criminal content published on the network.”
He continued, “Foreign cell phone messaging networks such as WhatsApp, Viber, and Telegram…[provide] grounds for widespread espionage by foreign states on the citizens’ communications [and] have turned into a safe bed for cultural invasion and organized crime,” and argued that all social networks “affiliated…to hostile states and foreign intelligence services” should be completely blocked.
He and other officials have also argued that only those social networks that agree to locate their servers inside Iran be allowed to operate. So far no global company has agreed to this, given the severe reputational costs any company would suffer from a move that would immediately compromise the security of its users; placing servers inside Iran would allow state authorities access to content flowing across them.
Khorramabadi told Fars Iran’s domestic social networks should be strengthened so that the country’s users would migrate to them. Duplicating global Internet services and applications with government-produced versions that covertly provide the authorities with backdoor access to the accounts has been central to state efforts to covertly monitor online content, and identify and prosecute online activists.
Hardliner and moderates also clash over providing access to high speed Internet. For years the authorities slowed the Internet to render it effectively unusable, particularly for mobile phone use. Rouhani’s decision to approve the granting of licenses for 3G and 4G networks in April 2014 was seen as a major advance for mobile Internet access. However, the state broadcasting agency, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), has been refusing to grant the frequency necessary for nationwide access to 3G and 4G services, limiting their coverage. The head of IRIB is appointed by Khamenei and reports directly to him.
Meanwhile, the authorities’ assault on Internet users continues unabated as well. On August 30, 2015, Judiciary spokesperson Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei reported the imprisonment of four individuals who posted “insulting” content in cyberspace, the latest in a long line of arrests and prosecution of Internet professionals and social media users.
In addition, the Tehran Police Commander Hossein Sajedinia told the official Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) on September 6, 2015, that over the last five months, Iran’s Fata Cyber police had closed 272 Internet cafes and issued warnings to another 847.
“Khamenei believes if he can maintain control over the Internet, he can maintain control over the citizenry. But with more than half of Iran’s 80 million people online, that train has already left the station.” Ghaemi said.