Iran Tightens Internet Censorship by Requiring Government Agencies to Use State-Approved Search Engines
After banning the widely used Telegram messaging app, the Iranian government is once again deepening its censorship and suppression of internet use in the country by forcing government agencies to use domestic, state-approved online search engines.
The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has learned that these search engines, which were produced with state funding or state approval, provide censored and/or false information, and in some cases spread malware.
The internet and social media apps are heavily restricted and censored in Iran. Some 44 percent of the country’s 80-plus million people had access to the internet in 2016, according to the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU). As a result, Iranian state policies and technical initiatives have increasingly focused on strengthening state control over the internet.
Deputy Telecommunications Minister Rasoul Saraian announced on May 15 that all government agencies would soon be restricted to domestic search engines.
“We are preparing a decree that, if approved by the [president’s] cabinet, the use of native search engines by government agencies would become mandatory,” said Saraian.
The statement comes on the heels of the ban on Telegram as well as Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi’s statement that Iran could also soon block online censorship circumvention tools.
These tools, such as virtual private networks (VPNs), are heavily used in Iran by users who wish to access censored apps or content or who wish to hide their personal information from state agencies.
President Hassan Rouhani was twice voted into office promising to improve access to information and internet freedom in the country.
But Iranian officials also appear to be expanding and improving the quality of domestic search engines, developed as part of the National Information Network (NIN), in order to block access to foreign search engines, thereby restricting online content in Iran to only that which is approved by the state.
The NIN’s national search engines now systematically filter keywords and phrases—and send users to sites that deliver only state-approved and sometimes fabricated content. NIN tools and services also facilitate the state’s ability to identify users and access their online communications, deeply compromising user privacy and security.
Iranian Search Engines Produce Falsified and Censored Results
CHRI has found that searching for 40 keywords or phrases commonly used in Iran on a domestic search engine such as ParsiJoo results in censored information, falsified information and/or propaganda created by Iran’s cyber army and other security agencies seeking to hack and monitor people’s personal accounts.
Iran’s security establishment includes the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization and the Intelligence Ministry.
Search results were especially censored or falsified when users looked for online censorship circumvention tools, art, medical issues such as sexual diseases, politics, Iran’s anti-compulsory-hijab protesters, the death and execution of Iranian political prisoners, protest rallies, social media networks, Iran’s role in Syria, protests by Iranian Ahwazi Arabs against a discriminatory children’s TV show, academic articles on gender issues, and sexuality.
In some cases, certain keywords or phrases—such as “2009 protests”—direct users to fake pages that contain malware and endanger the user’s online security.
For example, a search for “Kavous Seyed-Emami,” the Iranian Canadian academic and environmentalist who died under suspicious circumstances in Iran’s Evin Prison in February 2018, brings up links to websites affiliated with Iranian security agencies, such as Mashregh News, and contain stories fabricated by agencies like the IRGC or the Judiciary.
The Iranian government has not officially informed the public that domestic search engines only provide state-approved content. But in an interview with Iran’s state-funded Channel 1 television program, “Yek Negah” (One Look), on February 17, 2108, Telecommunications Minister Jahromi confirmed that domestic search engine results “can be managed.”