Rouhani Admin’s New “Fair Usage” Internet Price Rates Violate Net Neutrality
Seven months into President Hassan Rouhani’s second term, his Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi has introduced a new pricing scheme for internet usage that violates net neutrality while improving state censorship capabilities.
Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all online data the same, and provide the conditions for unfettered access. In these circumstances, no service, application, or website would be granted preferential treatment, resulting in an open internet devoid of discrimination and censorship.
In an interview with the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting service, on November 28, 2017, Rouhani claimed he was seeking to lower pricing rates.
“We are trying to make cyberspace a more open environment,” said the president, who was re-elected in May 2017. “Instead of trying to sell more internet subscriptions, we are seeking to make the bandwidth wider and hopefully from December 1, people will be offered lower internet usage prices.”
However, lower prices will only be offered to those who opt to access state-approved online content. Those who opt to access non-state-approved content will be subject to higher prices.
Providing monetary incentives and tailored content is a direct violation of net neutrality and the human right of access to information. Net neutrality requires treating “all content, applications, and services equally without discrimination.”
Developer Jadi Mirmirani, who runs the “Free Keyboard” blog, wrote on December 5, 2017, that the new rates “could turn out to be a very aggressive censorship mechanism.”
“This means that if someone dares to access the real internet [over state-approved content], he will reach his [download] limit much faster than someone who only surfs approved sites, and there is no option to pay more money to increase your limit. What could be a more effective censorship tool?” he wrote.
In Iran, internet usage is charged per a downloaded or uploaded gigabyte.
Under the pricing scheme promoted by the Rouhani administration’s Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology as “Fair Usage,” an internet subscriber who has purchased 160 gigabytes of traffic per month would be given a 50% discount on every gigabyte used to access state-approved content.
For example, an Iranian who uses the state-approved Gap messaging app would pay half the price that one who uses the foreign-made Telegram messaging app would pay.
In other words, Iranians who want to access non-state-approved content can only do so at a more expensive rate and slower download speed. By introducing this pricing scheme, the state is not only violating net neutrality, it is also more effectively censoring content by associating foreign content with higher costs.
If users utilize virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass state filters, the encrypted data will be flagged by Iranian internet service providers (ISPs) and users will be charged the higher rate.
In addition, under the Rouhani government’s so-called “Fair Usage” pricing structure, if Iranians use up their gigabyte limit before the end of the month, their internet speed is reduced to the slowest download and upload speed.
“All these so-called unlimited service plans being offered have a limit that is not that high,” wrote Mirmirani on his blog. “They are only good for average users at home.”
“For instance, if you are a Hiweb [ISP] customer, you cannot purchase a plan with more than 160 gigabytes per month, which means about five gigabytes per day,” he added. “You can imagine what would happen if a company with 20 people all tried to use the internet at the same time or if you wanted to update your Sierra browser with a five-gigabyte usage limit.”
On December 2, 2017, an Iranian user on Twitter, Reza Shalbafzadeh, asked Telecommunications Minister Jahromi, “Why isn’t the internet neutral in Iran? Traffic should not be divided into foreign and domestic. The internet should be available to all just like highways, electricity, and water, regardless of who produces or uses the content.”
Jahromi did not respond to Shalbafzadeh, however, at a press conference on December 4, 2017, he claimed the new internet rates do not violate net neutrality.
“This matter does not violate neutrality in accessing information,” he told a reporter. “Even foreign [internet] operators offer special plans for accessing domestic information.”
Although dividing traffic into domestic and international categories is not by itself a violation of net neutrality, giving preferential treatment to one type of traffic amounts to discriminatory interference and undermines the rights of access to information and freedom of choice.
State attempts to control the internet in Iran have intensified since Jahromi announced on December 4, 2017, that the government’s “smart filtering” system has failed nine years after it was introduced at a cost of some 110 billion tomans (approximately $31.7 million USD).
“Smart filtering is practically impossible now that tools enable access to most content under HTTPS protocols,” said the minister.
Jahromi was referring to the websites and apps that use SSL protocols to encrypt traffic between users and servers while preventing content monitoring.
So-called “smart filtering” was introduced in Iran to enable the state to selectively censor specific content within a website or app without having to block it completely.
On December 4, 2017, Jahromi commented on the “Fair Usage” pricing structure, which was initially introduced as the “User Classification” plan in November by Abolhassan Firouzabadi, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme Cyberspace Council (SCC).
“We have studied the proposals from the prosecutor general and prepared the necessary technical response for the implementation of this project, which we hope will be approved so that we can go ahead with offering access to users to content filtered on the basis of their situation, age and condition [gender, profession, age, social standing],” said Jahromi.
Under this new filtering system, users must verify their identity and other personal details before being allowed to access online content. After users provide their full name, National Identification Number, profession, and gender, ISPs will censor their online content according to that information.
“This plan not only violates user privacy, it will also lead to gender discrimination for different sites, just like technical textbooks,” tweeted Iranian user NaiemeG on December 4, 2017.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, women are prohibited from studying certain subjects because of their gender while men can study whatever they choose.
Iranian officials have not provided further details about the new internet rates and refused to answer questions about whether users would be discriminated against based on their gender, religion, race, education, and geographic location.