Iran’s Telecommunications Minister Pledges To “Get Rid of” Foreign Social Media Despite Past Failed Attempts
President Hassan Rouhani’s Telecommunications Minister Mahmoud Vaezi has refuted criticism that he has been unwilling to block online content deemed immoral by state authorities and has pledged to “get rid of” foreign-based social media networks despite previous failed attempts.
At the same time, the minister admitted that some of the demands being made of him by state officials outside the Rouhani government are politically motivated.
The minister was responding to criticism by Assistant Prosecutor General Abdolsamad Khorramabadi, who claimed on July 15, 2017 that the ministry had stalled the blocking of “a list of about 8,000 channels on the Telegram network with criminal content against the people’s sacred and national values.”
The internet and social media apps are heavily restricted and censored in Iran, with hardline state officials viewing any form of internet freedom as a threat to the Islamic Republic.
Khorramabadi, who is also the secretary of Iran’s main internet censorship body, the Taskforce to Determine Instances of Criminal Content, accused the ministry of failing to act despite “several judicial orders.”
On July 18, the telecommunications minister fought back, stating that many of the demands have nothing to do with criminal content. He also blamed Telegram, a messaging and social media network, for refusing to comply with state requests to ban certain channels and content.
“We are in contact with officials at Telegram, but they refuse to shut down political channels,” said Vaezi in a meeting with a group of conservative members of Iran’s Parliament.
“For instance we, like you, would like to see Amad News shut down,” he added. “They criticize the Telecommunications Ministry the most.”
With “Awareness, Struggle, Democracy” as its motto, Amad News is an independent Persian-language news channel on Telegram with more than 460,000 members. The channel often publishes content critical of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“During the [May 2017] elections, they asked us to close down some of the social media channels that supported one [political] faction or another,” said Vaezi, without indicating which authority made the demands. “What do they [the channels] have to do with criminal content?”
With some 40 million users in Iran, Telegram serves as a non-state-controlled source of news and analysis operating alongside the country’s severely censored official news media.
Centrist President Rouhani and reformist politicians, which are not allotted anywhere near the same amount of airtime on state media as conservatives, have been increasingly using Telegram to reach the electorate.
Recognizing the app’s popularity, hardliners have consistently tried to ban or filter Telegram, while also setting up their own channels to reach voters.
The Rouhani government has meanwhile repeatedly called for less state control over the internet.
This has invited the scorn of not only the agencies that police cyberspace, but also hardline politicians seeking to unseat him.
During his meeting with the MPs, the telecommunications minister announced the launch of four domestically produced social media networks—Salam, Soroush, Wispi and BisPhone—as state-endorsed alternatives to foreign-owned networks currently used in Iran.
“We are waiting for our domestic social media operators to give us assurances that they are ready to launch and then we will get rid of foreign social media networks,” he said on July 18 to the conservative MPs.
“It belittles the Telecommunications Ministry to see people going on foreign social media networks,” he added. “None of my colleagues are happy about it.”
According to Vaezi, some of Iran’s domestic social media networks already have more than two million members. When their membership surpasses three million, the companies will be allowed to advertise in Iran, and after reaching five million members, they could apply for state funds for further development, he said.
However, previous attempts to replace popular foreign apps have proven unsuccessful.
“In the past four years we have shut down many social media networks, but people quickly migrated to other networks,” admitted Vaezi at the meeting. “When we blocked the Chinese network WeChat, 24 hours later 3.5 million people moved over to WhatsApp, which is an American network. In effect, we went from the frying pan into the fire.”
Vaezi had stated a month earlier that his ministry had filtered “seven million” websites during Rouhani’s first term (2013-17).
“In the past three years, we have blocked seven million [web] addresses reported to us from authoritative agencies and blocked 121,000 important software and filter breakers,” he said during an open session of Parliament on June 6, 2017.
Filtering in Iran refers to the selective blocking of content within a website, as opposed to the complete blocking or shutting down of an entire website.
The minister also claimed that websites and online services categorized as problematic by the state were reduced from eight percent to 1.5 percent by automated “smart filtering” methods.
On April 20, 2017, three days after Telegram’s Voice Calls service was deemed a threat to national security and blocked by the conservative judiciary, a senior commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) revealed Rouhani had opposed the ban.
“In a meeting with Rouhani, we emphasized that allowing Telegram to initiate a voice calling service in Iran would prevent us from having any kind of control. But the president replied, ‘Why are you opposed to any kind of technology imported from the West? Telegram is a symbol of technology and modernism. We should import it to our country,’” said General Hassan Nejat, the head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization.
In mid-March 2017, in the run-up to Iran’s presidential election on May 19 wherein Rouhani successfully sought re-election, the IRGC arrested six administrators of pro-Rouhani reformist channels on Telegram.
Nima Keshvari, Ali Ahmadnia, Mojtaba Bagheri, Sobhan Jafari-Tash, Javad Jamshidi, and Saeed Naghdi, who have been denied access to legal counsel since their arrest, will be tried on August 13, 14 and 15, 2017 at Branch 15 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court presided by Judge Abolqasem Salavati for their peaceful online activities.