Is Online Censorship in Iran Thawing or Being Defrosted?

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“Dear citizens! Attention please, attention please: Tehran is now free.”[i] Such was the content of an anonymous message widely shared on the messaging app Telegram in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 elections in Iran. The prevailing mood on Iranian social media was one of jubilance and celebration, with expressions of not-quite-veiled glee and irreverence springing up in considerable numbers. The conservative establishment, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi (head of the Assembly of Experts), and even the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei were the butt of jokes[ii] following the weaker-than-expected performance of regime hardliners in both the parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections. Despite facing a media ban, even former President Mohammad Khatami took to YouTube[iii] to urge citizens to support reformist candidates.

These celebratory overtures seem to be taking place under the tacit support of President Hassan Rouhani’s government. In a surprising display of openness, the Iranian Ministry of Telecommunications (TCI) did not block or filter content during the elections, despite a legal precedent that would have allowed censorship of communications platforms twenty-four hours prior to election day. Sporadic outages were reported[iv] on February 24 and 25, but social media has remained unblocked and unfiltered. Adding to the intrigue are reports that hardline organizations such as the Iranian police pressured [v]the TCI to shut down popular social media apps before the election. “We resisted[vi],” stated the Minister of Communication, Mahmoud Vaezi, leading to accusations by the ultraconservative judiciary chief, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, that reformers were colluding with “American and English media outlets” to sway the elections.[vii]

Hardliners are correct in worrying about the lack of censorship: online content is disproportionately used by young, urban, and moderate-leaning Iranian voters[viii], potentially contributing to the success of President Rouhani’s reformist allies in both elections. With over 30 million voters accounting for a turnout rate of over 60 percent, it appears that moderate candidates exceeded expectations[ix] in both the Parliament and the Assembly of Experts, thanks to surges from urban and middle class supporters in all major cities. According to an estimate[x] by the Supreme Council on Cyberspace, roughly 39 million Iranians own smartphones, of which 13 million use the messaging app Telegram. Access to the Internet and alternative media can be influential in boosting turnout, potentially accounting for the TCI’s strategic restraint on online filtering.[xi]

Maintaining open access to the Internet contributed to the centrist and moderate surge in the Parliament, allowing young and tech-savvy Iranians to continue the conversation and inform one another on their preferred list of candidates. Reformists, centrists, and moderate conservatives, including 17 women parliamentarians (all reformists or independents) now hold 41% of seats.[xii] Touting a voter turnout rate of 59%, Iranians elected fewer clerics than any time since the foundation of the Islamic Republic: only 6% of seats are currently held by clerics, a figure smaller than the percentage of women in Parliament.[xiii] Open access to information promotes political discourse and participation, goals that are actually sought by the Iranian regime in its search for internal legitimacy. This is evidenced by the fact that provincial, city, district, and village council elections were held at the same time as the federal elections in order to boost turnout.[xiv] The free flow of information and access to the web are quite useful in this regard.

This, however, should be regarded as a short-term tactic, a rational calculation by Rouhani’s government aimed largely at consolidating a strong moderate presence in the Assembly of Experts and the Parliament, the former of which will be pivotal in electing the next Supreme Leader of Iran. An unmentioned element in the tussle between the Judiciary and the TCI is the development of the National Internet (NI) project, a proposed large-scale nationalization of the Internet in Iran. The overall goal, though wide reaching, is explicit: the NI aims to implement a hermetically sealed information-sharing platform whose content is mediated and controlled by the regime.[xv]

The deployment of the NI is proceeding via two key initiatives. First, massive infrastructural spending must provide for the underlying hardware and resources required to create an in-house Internet service sequestered from the World Wide Web. This requires a near-universal improvement of the domestic communications infrastructure, in order to integrate the less-developed and more rural communities within the nation. Second, the project requires wide-scale censorship to bring Internet users in Iran into the national net, closing off access to international content.[xvi]

The concept of a national or “clean” Internet was first pitched in 2005, during the Ahmadinejad presidency. The endeavour was driven by fears that search engines like Google could spy on Iranian users’ data and usage practices. The project gained support through Article 46(2) of the Fifth Development Plan (2011-2015), which called for “measures to facilitate the establishment of a secure and private intranet.” Fears of external tampering and intervention were fanned following the implementation of the sanctions regime and exacerbated during the Stuxnet incident, which expedited the implementation of the NI project.[xvii]

Echoing some of the objectives of the initial developers, subsequent legislation also highlighted the importance of promoting Iranian and Islamic content, enhancing digital literacy, fostering digital businesses and furthering cyber-literacy among Iranian citizens.[xviii] Such goals would, naturally, co-occur with an expressed mandate to improve security and control social media outlets. The “nationalization” of the Internet would greatly empower an agenda of content suppression, chilling freedom of online expression and exposing citizens to fears of reprisal should they engage in “subversive” discourse.

The Green Movement and the results of this election cycle have provided the regime with a clear lesson on the importance of the Fourth Estate: the Internet and online media now provide an increasingly vital medium for the instigation, development, and strengthening of social movements.[xix] The modernization of communications infrastructure (the first phase of the NI project) could yield many positives for Iranians, allowing them wider access to the Web and a hitherto-unexplored medium for self-expression. What remains to be seen is whether the regime takes significant steps in order to expand its circle of influence in the near future. Though the current relaxation of online control led to a welcome victory for moderates, it is still unclear if such an act was an organic thaw or just a controlled defrosting of online suppression in Iran.

About the Author

Peyman Majidzadeh is a doctoral candidate in Law, Politics, and Development at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, Italy, and a visiting researcher at Georgetown University. Originally from Iran, Peyman conducts research on international sanctions, political cohesion and regime survival.

Ariya Hagh is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government at Georgetown University, where he specializes in international relations, formal and quantitative methods, and the Middle East. His research examines the evolution of autocratic regimes, with a substantive focus on succession dynamics, alliances, and deterrence.

[i] Esfandiari Golnaz, “’Tehran Is Now Free’ — Iranian Election Results Spark Gleeful Social-Media Response,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, http://www.rferl.mobi/a/27579014.html

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Former president, Mohammad Khatami’s video massage inviting the electorates to vote for the reformists’ list called ‘the list of Hope’ available on YouTube (in Persian), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psMgpk33A60

[iv] Anderson Collin, “Iranian news sites blocked from foreign access during #IranElections2016 appear to be reachable again,” Twitter, https://twitter.com/CDA/status/703978025575174144

[v] “Rouhani Administration Under Pressure to Shut Down Iran’s Most Popular Mobile App Prior to Election,” International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, https://www.iranhumanrights.org/2016/02/rouhani-administration-under-pressure-to-shut-down-irans-most-popular-mobile-app-prior-to-election/

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Nakhoul Samia, “Iran’s Rouhani welcomes poll wins that could mean faster reform,” Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-election-vote-idUSKCN0VZ0E7

[viii] “Tightening the Net: Iran’s National Internet Project,” ARTICLE 19, https://www.article19.org/data/files/The_National_Internet_AR_KA_final.pdf

[ix] Erdbrink Thomas, “In Iran Elections, Conflicting Forecasts Emerge Along Rival Lines,” The New York Times, 28 February 2016.

[x] “Tightening the Net: Iran’s National Internet Project,”

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] http://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2016/apr/27/iran%E2%80%99s-runoff-election-parliament

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/05/iran-city-council-elections.html#

[xv] Rhoads Christopher, Fassihi Farnaz, “Iran Vows to Unplug Internet,” The Wall Street Journal, 28 May 2011

[xvi] “Tightening the Net: Iran’s National Internet Project,”

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Halderman J. Alex et al., “Internet Censorship in Iran: A First Look,” USENIX, https://jhalderm.com/pub/papers/iran-foci13.pdf

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