In January, headlines were briefly dominated by the news that Iran was planning to implement a two-hour internet shutdown as part of a defence exercise — threatening severe disruption to users. A public outcry deterred authorities from following through in the end, but the debacle did manage to overshadow some other potentially worrying policy-making developments taking place at the same time.
However, there were two significant movements in shaping the internet policy-making process in Iran, Firstly, January saw the appointment of Saied Reza Ameli — an influential academic with close ties to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — as Secretary of the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution. In addition Ameli met with the Chairman of the Supreme Council for Cyberspace Abdolhasan Firouzabadi, hinting at closer policy coordination between the two bodies in the future.
In another development, it appears that domestic messaging apps are continuing to gain support and investment from influential institutions. In January it was announced that MTN has invested in the popular domestic messenger app Gap, and that it will work with government to incorporate new eGovernment services into the app’s functionalities. An edition of Filterwatch from earlier this year spoke more about the potential for domestic messenger apps to incorporate eGovernment services in order to expand their user base.
Supreme Councils of Cyberspace and Cultural Revolution Move Towards Internet Policy Coordination
On 21 January the SCC Secretary Abolhasan Firouzabadi held a meeting with Saied Reza Ameli, the newly appointed Secretary of the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution (SCCR), who is also a sitting member of SCC. Although few details were made available about the meeting, it appears discussions focused on expanding cooperation between the two committees, and potentially forming a joint committee.
The appointment of Ameli and meeting may prove to be incredibly important in the coming months. Reza Ameli who is a valued adviser of Iranian Supreme Leader is an scholar of the Internet, and his appointment may bring about more aggressive digital culture policies backed by SCC and Iranian Supreme Leader.
Iranian MPs Complain About Being Locked Out of Filtering Committee
Two Iranian MPs sitting on the CDICC have written to Iran’s Parliamentary Speaker complaining about the lack of meetings of the body. According to the two MPs — Mohammad Kazemi and Ramazanali Sobhanifar — a number of filtering decisions have been taken via an online system for which they have not yet been granted access. They argued that to hold such meetings online is illegal.
The following day, the newly appointed CDICC Secretary Javad Javidnia — who also serves as the Judiciary’s Cyberspace Deputy — claimed that no laws prohibit voting on filtering issues using online systems.
SCC Considers Proposals for National “Identity Authentication System”
On 26 January an SCC meeting was chaired by President Hassan Rouhani. Limited information is available about the meeting, although the development of an “Identity Authentication System” was discussed. No resolutions were passed, and further policy discussions were deferred to the next meeting.
Discussions around identity authentication constitute an important component of the current legislative outlook in Iran, as a number of proposed internet governance bills contain references to centralised online identity authentication systems that would be used to provide eGovernment services to Iranian internet users.
Iran Unveils New IP Expansion Project
On 1 January, ICT Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi and SCC Secretary Firouzabadi took part in the inauguration ceremony for SHOMA’s IP core network development plan. This project aims to treble the capacity of Iran’s IP core network. This confirms Iran’s ongoing commitment to developing SHOMA, and the infrastructure to host more content domestically — a key pillar of ICT policy under President Rouhani.
TIC Chairman Denies Preferential Treatment for Some Foreign Apps and Websites
On 23 January Hamid Fatahi, the Chairman of the Board of Iran’s Telecommunications Infrastructure Company claimed that no applications or social networking sites hosted outside of Iran receive preferential treatment with regard to data allocation, and that all international apps and sites are accessible on Iranian infrastructure on an equal footing.
Internet Shutdown ‘Exercise’ Aborted After Public Outcry
On 22 January Tasnim News Agency — an agency close to the IRGC — published news that Iran would hold an “exercise” in shutting down the internet on 27 January. Within hours the exercise was called off, and the announcement was condemned by Iran’s ICT Minister.
Based on official reports, it appears that security oriented organisations were seeking to shut down part of Iran’s Internet for two hours, and it seems the public backlash and negative publicity stopped the plans.
For Iranian security and defence organisations a key objective of the development of SHOMA has been to make it possible to enact internet shutdowns without affecting the operation of core services such as the financial sector. It is likely that this planned exercise sought to test the current capacity of SHOMA to achieve this outcome.
Filtering Committee Head Highlights Cyber Crime Rates
On 3 January CDICC Secretary and Judiciary Cyberspace Deputy Javad Javidnia claimed that there are currently over 23,000 cyber crime cases under investigation in Tehran, around 15,000 of which are from the current calendar year (March 2018 — March 2019). He stated that between 60-80% of these cases relate to Telegram or Instagram.
ICT Ministry’s “Innovator Plan” Awaits Cabinet Approval
On 31 January Iran’s ICT Minister Azari Jahromi announced that his Ministry’s “Innovator Plan” to support domestic tech startups had been sent to the Cabinet Economics Committee for consideration. According to Jahromi, the proposed reform package would make it easier for new startups to register companies, pay taxes, and provide health insurance to employees.
MTN Irancell Promises to Roll Out More eGov Services Via Gap Messenger App
On 22 January MTN Irancell, Iran’s second largest mobile network, announced that it had invested an unspecified sum of money in the messaging app Gap. As part of the investment, MTN Irancell will be working to roll out other services through Gap to Iranian customers, namely servers related to Iranian eGovernment project.
Earlier this year it was announced that Gap messaging app will also try to provide financial transaction services to users in Sub-Saharan Africa. Recently we highlighted the threat of domestic messaging app as the government commitment to use them to deliver services through them makes them an attractive investment opportunity for Iranian business.
SCC Secretary Claims Instagram Usage at Unacceptable Levels
In an interview on 1 January SCC Secretary and Judiciary Cyberspace Deputy Javad Javidniya claimed that an existing SCC resolution set a limit on the national data usage of Instagram, implying that the ICT Ministry should subsequently take action to reduce the usage of IG in Iran. He claimed that this threshold has now been passed, implying that action would subsequently be taken.
Although judiciary officials have made clear their ambitions to block Instagram in Iran, it appears that they still lack the support of both the CDICC and the SCC in taking action.