Guards at the Gate: The Expanding State Control Over the Internet in Iran by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), provides a detailed analysis of internet policy and technological developments in Iran over the 2013-2018 period. The report, which builds on CHRI’s research and reporting on internet freedom and security issues in Iran and the growing technological capabilities of the state throughout these years, reveals the steady progress the Iranian government has made in controlling its citizenry’s use of the internet. In particular, Guards at the Gate examines the development of the country’s state-controlled National Information Network (NIN) and the enhanced state capabilities for internet filtering, blocking and surveillance it has enabled. The report assesses the implications of these developments for Iranians’ access to information and online privacy, and offers recommendations to the authorities in Iran and to the international community to address the rights violations Iranians are being subjected to by Iran’s state’s internet policies.
During the unrest that swept through Iran on the eve of 2018, the authorities implemented major disruptions to internet access through slowdowns and the blocking of circumvention tools, blocked the Instagram social media platform and the Telegram messaging app used heavily by the protesters to mobilize the street protests, and briefly cut off Iranians’ access to the global internet on December 30, 2017, demonstrating a new level of technical sophistication. These actions confirm the main contention of this report—namely, that while internet use has expanded throughout Iran with the help of upgrades to the country’s telecommunications infrastructure and faster and cheaper internet service, technological initiatives undertaken by the Iranian government, in particular development of Iran’s NIN, have significantly enhanced the government’s ability to restrict, block and monitor internet use in Iran.
Over the period this report covers, which encompasses President Rouhani’s first term (2013-2017) and the beginning of his second, internet use in Iran has grown exponentially. Some 53 percent of the country’s 80 million-plus people use the internet, according to the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which may well be an underestimate given that there are now over 40 million mobile phones in use in the country and the Telegram messaging application alone has 40 million registered users in Iran. Election campaigns are increasingly waged on Telegram, Twitter and Instagram; social media networks serve as major platforms for Iranians to discuss political, social and cultural issues; and mobile applications are being rapidly developed for business start-ups. Online communication has become particularly central to Iran’s youth. Sixty percent of the country’s population is under 30, and they are an educated and tech savvy population that has produced a vibrant and entrepreneurial tech community.
This increase in internet use has been propelled by the Rouhani government’s decision to lift the long-standing limitations on internet speeds in Iran. Rouhani has increased bandwidths across the country, and expanded the availability of 3G and 4G licenses, which lay the groundwork for the exponential increase in mobile phone use. This increase in speed has affected all aspects of Iranian society. It allows the transfer of large files, video streaming, the use of VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol, used in messaging applications such as Telegram, Signal and WhatsApp) and other services that aid information sharing. This has not only facilitated general communication amongst the public, higher internet speeds have enhanced professional, academic and commercial communications, as well as the ability to develop Iranian online services. It has also been critical to the work of journalists, activists and other members of civil society in Iran.
The state too has a heavy presence on the internet, with Iranian officials themselves avid users of the same online platforms that they block for the Iranian general public. They use Twitter, Telegram, Facebook and other platforms to promote their own narratives of issues and events, recognizing that the internet is increasingly eclipsing traditional print and broadcast media in Iran. The authorities have also seen that it has proven harder to establish the kind monopoly on information on the internet that it has enjoyed on the country’s print and broadcast media.
As a result, Iranian state policies and technical initiatives have increasingly focused on strengthening the state’s capabilities for internet control, censorship and surveillance. The centerpiece of these efforts has been the accelerated development of the country’s NIN. During Rouhani’s tenure, many aspects of the NIN and its various tools and services—national search engines, data centers, email and video services and the likes—have become operational.
As will be detailed in this report, the NIN and its various components significantly expand the state’s capabilities to control the internet in Iran. The NIN’s national search engines now systematically filter key words and phrases—and send users to sites that deliver only state-approved and sometimes fabricated content. NIN tools and services facilitate the state’s ability to identify users and access their online communications, deeply compromising user privacy and security. The government steers Iranians toward use of the NIN through price and internet speed incentives, violating net neutrality principles. Critically, the NIN’s ability to separate domestic internet traffic in Iran from international internet traffic now allows, for the first time, the state to cut Iranians off from the global internet while maintaining access to domestic online sites and services—a capacity demonstrated briefly on December 30, 2017. Indeed, Iranian officials view the NIN as the central means to enhance state control over the internet, a goal promoted by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. In a meeting with President Rouhani and his cabinet in September 2016, Khamenei said, “We must, God willing, follow this project so we won’t sustain irreparable blows.” 3
The capacity to restrict the people of Iran to state-approved content on a domestic internet has been a long-standing goal of hardliners in Iran—intelligence and security agencies, judicial officials, and the country’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei—who fear internet freedom and view the internet as a Western ploy to undermine the Islamic Republic. The government’s disruption to internet access in Iran during the 2009 protests, prior to the development of the NIN, showed that any internet disruption also severed the government and other critical agencies from needed online communications. With the NIN’s ability to separate global from domestic internet traffic, the state’s goal of severing Iranians’ access to the global internet while maintaining the availability of Iran’s state-controlled domestic internet—thereby restricting Iranians, as needed and at the government’s discretion, to state-approved content—has now been realized. This alone has justified for them the major decade-long investment the Iranian government has made in the development of the NIN.
In addition, during this period the government’s blocking of major social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, as well as millions of other websites, has continued, even as Rouhani has on a few occasions thwarted the blocking of messaging applications such as WhatsApp. Moreover, intensifying state filtering is now increasingly targeting applications that provide encryption by default (which provide security automatically, without user input), that are vital to Iranians’ efforts to maintain online privacy.
Iranian security and intelligence organizations have also intensified cyberattacks against the citizenry, bringing down websites and hacking into personal accounts in order to identify and block voices critical of state policy. Indeed, state-sponsored DDoS attacks, phishing, malware, message interception and the use of insecure fake applications have notably increased under Rouhani’s administration. With hardline state security and intelligence organizations in control of the country’s telecommunications infrastructure, their ability to access private online communications, unhindered by any judicial oversight, poses grave threats to Iranian users; individuals are arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison terms on the basis of online content unlawfully obtained by the state in this manner.
Rouhani has remained publicly silent in the face of these attacks and has made no public effort to advance judicial or legislative oversight of state access to accounts or to otherwise defend the online privacy that is ostensibly protected by Iranian law, despite his stated support for internet freedom and his promulgation of a citizens’ rights charter. Overall, Rouhani has proved either unable or unwilling to defend internet freedom, and, in some respects, such as in the accelerated development of the NIN, has facilitated and implemented decisions and initiatives that severely violate it. The recent brief severance of access to the global internet and the blocking of Telegram and Instagram are a huge departure from his statements after his re-election in 2017 against filtering and his pledges to protect Iranian’s online connection to the world.
Guards at the Gate provides a comprehensive understanding of the significant technological advancements the Iranian government has made over the last five years, and the implications these new capabilities have for Iranians’ access to the internet and their ability to communicate privately and safely online. The dream of hardliners in Iran—the ability to restrict its citizens’ engagement with the outside world and prevent exposure to information that challenges their world view—is becoming a reality. In the process, the Iranian people’s rights to information access and internet privacy, both integral to the fundamental right of freedom of expression, are being severely violated.
The state too has a heavy presence on the internet, with Iranian officials themselves as avid users of the same online platforms that they block for the Iranian general public. They use Twitter, Telegram, Facebook and other platforms to promote their own narratives of issues and events, recognizing that the internet is increasingly eclipsing traditional print and broadcast media in Iran. The authorities have also seen that it has proven harder to establish the kind monopoly on information on the internet that it has enjoyed on the country’s print and broadcast media.
As a result, Iranian state policies and technical initiatives have increasingly focused on strengthening state control over the internet. While the Rouhani administration has upgraded the country’s technical infrastructure, enabling this increase in internet speeds, and has lowered the price of internet access as well, the government has also sought to restrict the Iranian people to state-approved information through enhanced state filtering capabilities, limit online communication by blocking websites and social media platforms, and enhance the state’s surveillance capabilities by enabling state access to Iranians’ online accounts and activities.
To advance these goals, the government has accelerated development of the country’s National Information Network (NIN), Iran’s state- controlled and censored version of the internet. Under the Rouhani administration, and despite the president’s stated support for internet freedom, many aspects of the NIN have become operational and its various tools and services—national search engines, data centers, email and video services and the likes—have been heavily promoted by the state.
As will be detailed in this report, the NIN and its auxiliary components significantly expand the state’s ability to restrict Iranians’ access to online information and monitor their digital communications. Indeed, Iranian officials view the NIN as the central means to enhance state control over the internet, a goal promoted by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. In a meeting with President Rouhani and his cabinet in September 2016, Khamenei said, “We must, God willing, follow this project so we won’t sustain irreparable blows.”2
Iranian security and intelligence organizations have also intensified their cyberattacks against the Iranian citizenry, bringing down websites and hacking into personal accounts in order to identify and block voices critical of state policy. The Rouhani administration has remained publicly silent in the face of these attacks and has made no public effort to advance judicial or legislative oversight of state access to accounts or to otherwise defend the online privacy that is ostensibly protected by Iranian law. As unlawfully obtained online content is frequently used to prosecute and convict Iranian citizens of national security crimes that bring lengthy prison sentences, such cyberattacks put the security of Iranian users at great risk.
Iranian state efforts to control cyberspace have gathered intensity as the internet, social media, and mobile applications have emerged as vital public spaces for debate on political, economic, social and cultural issues in Iran. Iran’s security and intelligence agencies (particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), the judiciary, hardline members of Parliament, and the country’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, all recognize the extent to which the internet presents a potential challenge to their world views, their narrative of events, and the dictates they do not wish to see questioned. They openly state these platforms are dangerous vehicles of influence from the West. As such, the battle to control and restrict these platforms has become a central state goal.
This report by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) documents Iranian policies and technical initiatives concerning the internet during the presidency of Hassan Rouhani (2013-2017). It examines the development of the country’s National Information Network (NIN)—and the state’s censorship and surveillance capabilities contained therein—and the spread of state-sponsored cyberattacks. The report assesses the implications of these developments for Iranians’ access to information, freedom of speech, and online privacy and security, and offers recommendations to the authorities in Iran as well as to the international community to address the rights violations Iranians are being subjected to by these policies.