August was yet another turbulent chapter in Iran — US relations. With the pressure of sanctions mounting, and the list of sanctioned Iranian officials growing to include Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif, the downward spiral in relations between the two countries showed little sign of improving, with prospects for large-scale foreign investment remaining bleak.
Against this backdrop, Iran’s ICT Ministry has been pushing to advance its agenda on the improvement of rural telecommunications infrastructure with renewed vigour, with Jahromi embarking on a month-long visit of Iran’s provinces to announce investment projects nationwide. Such infrastructural improvements and increased connectivity continue to sit at the heart of the ongoing development of the National Information Network (SHOMA).
Policies around enhanced user monitoring also gained momentum this month, with the Supreme Council for Cyberspace (SCC) holding a meeting following months of silence, and the Filtering Committee meeting for the first time in two years. During the SCC session, the “Digital Identity Verification Bill” was passed, with the objective of creating “valid” online user identities, while the Filtering Committee hinted at new policy ambitions aligned with the concept of “layered filtering” previously discussed by Jahromi.
SCC Approves Draft Text of ‘Digital Identity Verification Bill’
On 31 August the Supreme Council for Cyberspace, in the presence of its members and chaired by Rouhani approved the ‘Valid Identity System in Cyberspace’ Bill, also known as the ‘Digital Identity Verification Bill’
Currently, the text of the bill remains unpublished and as a result has not faced any scrutiny from other officials, campaigners, or the general public.
The limited information published about the bill claims that it seeks to create a system for authenticating online identity to “establish an ecosystem for infrastructure providers to facilitate free, healthy and responsible interactions which respect individual and collective rights”. According to reports, the proposed Data Protection and Online Privacy Bill was also discussed during the meeting.
[NB The ‘Digital Identity Verification Bill’ was referred to as the ‘Electronic Identification Bill’ in our report Bills, Bills, Bills: Upcoming Policy Challenges in Iran, and How We Can Resist Them. We will be using the amended name from this point on].
Jahromi Publishes ICT Ministry Annual Report
On 28 August the ICT Ministry’s annual report on Jahromi’s second year, titled “Towards a Smart Iran” was published. The 38-page document is a celebration of what Jahromi’s ICT Ministry claims as its major achievements from the past two years, which are named as:
- The Digital Economy: A discussion of Iran’s current position and future potential in the global digital economy, and its impact on the national economy, politics and society.
- The National Internet Network (SHOMA): The ICT Ministry claimed the completion of nearly 80% of SHOMA’s infrastructure
- Connectivity and Access: The Ministry reports that 100% of major cities receive network coverage, and that 78% of villages are connected to the national network. It also claims that 20 villages are connected to the national network per day, on average).
- Domestic Digital Products: The Ministry also claims a 100% increase in the production of domestic applications over the past year (such as Simorgh, the navigation app set to replace foreign apps, the 20m+, users using domestic messaging apps, and the deployment of an Iranian version of Android to circumvent the sanctions-related removal of Iranian-made apps from Google Play and the App Store.
Notably, the figures outlined in the ICT Ministry report are often not supported by further documentation, or reference to other official documents.
National Centre for Cyberspace Offers SHOMA Media Trainings
On 26 August, officials at the National Centre for Cyberspace delivered the first training course about the National Internet Network (SHOMA) to journalists. According to the Center’s report, the course covered the history of the National Internet Network in Iran and other countries, examined existing perceptions of, and assumptions about the network, as well as giving an overview of bills passed by the SCC.
Other topics included infrastructure requirements and the role of other government departments in delivering SHOMA. Officials in charge of SHOMA since Rouhani’s 2013 election have struggled to dispel what they claim to be fundamental “misunderstandings” about the network. Meetings such as this are an attempt to align public perceptions of SHOMA with the state’s official vision for the project.
Jahromi Announces Launch of Network Quality Monitoring Platform ‘Faradid’
On 30 September Jahromi unveiled ‘Faradid’ — a platform for measuring connection quality indicators on SHOMA. The system which was created by the Communications Regulatory Authority, collects network data via 6,000 sensors across the country, used to identify trouble spots in the network. Network providers were given 45 days to improve the network quality before the system is made available to the public. This moves comes as Jahromi and ICT officials have come under pressure in the recent months
ICT Ministry Releases Recommendations on Cryptocurrency Regulation
On 28 August the ICT Ministry released its recommendations on “Technical Requirements and Terms for Extracting Cryptocurrencies”. The ministry’s initial proposal called for a total ban of mining cryptocurrencies by governmental and other public entities. The current recommendations propose granting crypto-mining licences to crypto-farms consuming more than 200 KW of electricity on a monthly basis.
It is unclear whether the licenses are to be exclusive to businesses or public/governmental bodies, or whether they will also extend to individuals. The recommendations seek to attract foreign investments and also provide a viable option for circumventing sanctions. However, the recommendations are not binding, and their implementation will depend on their acceptance by the government.
Hour-Long Network Disruption Blamed on International Route Providers
According to reports by Iranian news outlets, on 24 August Iranian users experienced network disruptions between 7.17pm and 8.10pm. In a tweet, Jahromi claimed the disruption to be a result of a technical error by the Telecommunication Infrastructure Company. The TIC’s Chairman explained that the disruption was caused by an international network provider giving the wrong settings to a default route, which went unnoticed by the technical team, causing disruptions for 50% of the network.
As a result, Jahromi called for a financial penalty to be deducted from the salaries of the TIC’s directors. In recent months NGOs and civil society have questioned Jahromi’s past explanations of network disruption, claiming that he has failed to disclose the full facts around their origin.
Investments Announced for Rural Infrastructure Expansion
On 27 August, the Director for Rural Expansion at the ICT Ministry, Mehrdad Torabian announced projects that will focus on connectivity in deprived areas such as Sistan and Baluchestan, Hormozgan, Kerman and Fars. According to Torabian, connection to the National Internet Network in villages with a 20+ family population has reached over 30 thousand and 34 thousand have mobile phone coverage. The project has allegedly received 1300bn IRR ( 308,751,92.40 USD) in investment funds from the ICT Ministry, which is also receiving investment triple this figure from the private sector.
Rouhani reiterated the same message on 26 August, stating that major cities and villages are now equals in terms of societal standing and are receiving the same commitment to the expansion of infrastructure and access to telecommunications, heath and energy services. The public statement supports the continued efforts to improve the infrastructure which contributes to his agenda of nationalising the internet and creating a more digitally focused economy.
As part of the same plan, on 19 August the Director-General for Innovation for Bushehr Province, Ali Somlian, announced that the expansion of appropriate telecommunications infrastructure is his top priority and that the ICT Ministry has “important plans” to progress Iran’s digital economy. He also announced the launch of a 330bn IRR (approximately 784,000 USD) fibre optic project in the province, as well as the development of new 4G sites, noting that 205 villages are now connected to SHOMA.
Jahromi had announced further expansion plans on 10 August which include the installation of fibre optic cables and should connect 89/90% of Azerbaijan East’s population and 67% of villages with populations above 20 families, with the aim of raising this number to 80% during phase 3 by the end of the year.
At SCC, ICT Ministry Defends Pace of SHOMA Progress
During an SCC session on 26 August, Rouhani commented that the best way to reduce the country’s vulnerability to cyberattacks is through the use of SHOMA, stressing that it remains a top priority for his government. Rouhani’s comment suggests that progress in implementing SHOMA may, in fact, be slower than the ICT Ministry’s officially reported figure of 80% infrastructure completion, which was highlighted by the Deputy ICT Minister, Amir Nazemi.
Nazemi cited the SCC bill on “Explaining the Requirements of the National Information Network”, stating that at 80% completion, the ICT Ministry has achieved more than the other ministries involved in SHOMA’s development, (and particularly with regard to service and content development). The claims of the ICT Ministry have been disputed within government and the SCC and cannot be verified, especially from outside Iran.
According to Nazemi 40% of bandwidth used is related to using national services. This is in line with the public rhetoric from the ministry in claiming that they have made significant progress for SHOMA’s infrastructure in comparison to previous administrations and to divert attention to other ministries with roles in SHOMA.
Jahromi Comments on Plans to Provide Cheaper Domestic Produced Mobile Phones
On 5 August in Torbat-e-Heydarieh, in Khorasan Razavi Province, Jahromi discussed and promoted the ICT Ministry’s infrastructure plans. He commented on how previous governments’ resistance to new technologies such as 3G and 4G had proved to have been fruitless. He argued that the fact that crypto/digital currencies had not faced similar resistance from authorities demonstrated a digital transformation in government.
He continued his promotion and support of low-cost domestically-produced mobile phones, and confirmed that special data packages are being considered to accompany them. As we have reported, Jahromi has praised the benefits of domestic phones utilising an Iran-developed alternative to Android OS, stating that they offer protection from the threat of sanctions-related takedowns that apply to Google Play and the App Store.
Cheaper handsets and low-cost data packages may make these phones more appealing than expensive imported models in the long run. However, privacy protections remain limited or non-existent, and there is a real concern that the Iran-produced hardware and software could facilitate greater levels of surveillance and filtering once deployed.
“Free Internet” for Married Couples and Journalists through ICT Gifting Sign Up Scheme
According to a report published on 10 August, 5,200 journalists and 3,000 married couples signed up for the president’s “free internet gift”. Journalists, and couples who got married during Iran’s “Marriage Week” signed up via ictgifts.com to receive a year of free internet access, as per Rouhani’s announcement. It is unclear who the network provider is, or how the scheme is funded.
Huawei and Irancell Collaborate on Bringing Cheaper Mobile Phones to the Iranian Market
According to a report published on 27 August, Irancell and Huawei are collaborating to bring “value” mobile phones to the market. The goal, according to Irancell, is to provide cheaper mobile phone alternatives whilst giving access to the latest technology and high internet speeds. The Huawei Y5 comes packaged with an Irancell SIM card, free 20GB data for the first month, and 12GB data for the following six months.
ICT Ministry Visits Major National News Outlets
The Head of the Centre for Public Relations and Information for the ICT Ministry, Seyed Jamal Hadyan, was appointed on behalf of the ICT minister to visit 21 popular news outlets around the country. The purpose of the visits, which began a month before the national “Journalist Day” on 8 August was to thank journalists and to reiterate the importance of empowering and supporting official outlets in order to encourage public trust and combat “fake news”. The Managing Editor of “Hamshahri” newspaper said that these visits help to build relationships between outlets and the government, and increase their cooperation.
Filtering Committee Holds a Meeting After Two-Year Delay
Following two years of silence, the Filtering Committee held an official meeting on 14 August. Chaired by the Attorney General and attended by all of its members (minus two moderators appointed from the Majles), the Committee discussed the issue of providing “safe” internet access to filtered and restricted websites, based on user’s individual and professional needs. This implies aspirations for a system of “layered filtering”, which we have discussed previously in Filterwatch.
Previous meetings were allegedly not held as the body could not attain a quorum.
Filmio to Provide Free Subscriptions to Irancell Users
According to a report on 7 August, free subscriptions to Filmio (the Iranian analogue to Netflix, developed by the creators of Aparat) were made available to Irancell users. Based on the first stage of a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the two companies, Irancell users can access Filimo’s content by creating an account and providing their “SIM card data”. It has been reported that the second stage will involve cooperation between the two providers to expand services and digital content. According to Filmio’s founder, the details of the MOU are to be published at a later date.
It is clear that the cooperation and expansion of these two companies is built upon shared access to and analysis of user data. The two companies’ policies around the granting of user permissions and the retention of user data remains unclear.
FATA Crackdown on Instagram Influencers
According to a series of investigations by the Centre for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), published on 16 August, dozens of popular Instagram accounts of Iranian athletes, celebrities, fashion designers and models have been subjected to crackdowns by the Cyber Police (FATA), in collaboration with the judiciary.
The owners of the accounts were allegedly arrested and held for hours, but were ultimately released on bail. It has been reported that many of them have been asked to hand over their password and account details, relinquish control of their accounts to the authorities, and to cooperate with them if they do not wish for their page to be deleted.
Subsequently, a message started to be posted across the affected users’ accounts, reading: “Any design, production and advertising of clothing must be in accordance with frameworks established by society”. On some accounts, this was accompanied by the description text: “In compliance with the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran”.
As we highlighted in September 2018, FATA has a record of seeking to put pressure on online influencers. In our most recent edition of FATAwatch we also highlighted that in the second quarter of 2019, FATA police has focused its attention on Instagram more than any other social media application.
50 Additional FATA Provincial Branches To Open
On 19 August, the Head of FATA Gen Vahid Majid announced the opening of 50 FATA branches nationwide following confirmation from the Director of the National Police (NAJA) to FATA’s request to do so. Majid reiterated the need to expand FATA nationwide in order to meet public demand for support, to prevent financial and other cyber-crimes, and to limit the damage inflicted upon Islamic society and culture by online spaces.
In a note dated 9 August (published on 11 August), Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, a celebrated Iranian writer, called on FATA to identify and prosecute those spreading “lies” under his name online. He stated that he has requested that FATA investigate this several times, including through his lawyer. Despite not having an online presence, according to Dowlatabadi, the fraudulent writings are continuing. The investigation of instances of online identity fraud has fallen under the remit of FATA. However, the lack of oversight on FATA’s activities make it impossible to assess their performance and activity in this area.