This month, developments in Iranian ICT policy have been overshadowed by the tragic floods that swept across much of the country. Starting amidst the Nowruz celebrations on 21 March, these floods continue to wreak havoc up until the time of writing.
These developments (along with the regular end-of-year lull) meant that March was a quiet month for internet policymakers, with no Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC) meetings being held.
However, this peace is unlikely to hold — the next time the SCC convenes the new head of the judiciary (and President Rouhani’s old nemesis) Ebrahim Raeisi will take up a seat on the council.
There are also murmurings of new policy initiatives that could prove worrying for digital rights activists, including the news that the SCC is considering the development of an online identity authentication system for Iranian internet users.
Although the precise nature of these proposals remains unclear at the moment, past discussions about these kinds of authentication systems have hardly seemed like great news for citizens’ online privacy. The Filterwatch team will continue to keep an eye on the SCC for further developments on this front, among others.
Hardliner Ebrahim Raeisi Appointed as Chief Justice
On 7 March Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointed Ebrahim Raeisi as Chief Justice of Iran. Raeisi — who clashed over digital rights with President Rouhani at the last presidential election — will again be in a position to exercise significant influence over Iranian ICT policy.
His appointment as head of the nation’s judiciary gives him an automatic seat on the SCC — Iran’s highest ICT policy-making body. We expect that he’ll soon make his presence known in policy debates there.
Executive Order Passed to Ensure Services Reach Rural Areas
On 3 March the Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA) passed an executive order titled the ‘Universal Service Obligation’ (USO). The code dictates that service providers must ensure they expand their services into rural and underpopulated areas.
No SCC Meeting for Second Month in a Row
No SCC meeting was held in March. This is the second month in a row that Rouhani failed to organise a meeting of the body. This may not be too significant, though — the delay could be explained in part by the commencement of the Iranian Nowruz holidays, which started on 21 March.
SCC Moves to Establish Identity Authentication System for Internet Users
On 15 March the SCC Secretary Abolhassan Firouzabadi announced that a project to create authenticated online identities has been discussed at the SCC. According to Firouzabadi, the project would require all internet users to have their identities authenticated.
In this proposed system, users would be able to access information according to their “needs”. In the past, Iranian authorities have discussed developing the existing filtering system to allow different types of users to be granted different levels of access to information online.
A Majority of Iran’s Roads Have Access to 3G/4G Networks
On 26 March Hossein Fallah Joshaqani, the Head of the Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA), announced that the majority of roads in Iran are now covered by 3G and 4G networks. He added that extending this coverage further is a priority for the ICT Ministry. The Ministry continues to make vocal statements about prioritising rural development in their regional infrastructure plans.
Telecommunication Infrastructure Company of Iran Steps Up Regional Cooperation
On 27 February Iran’s ICT Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi announced that a contract has been signed between companies from Qatar, Armenia, and the Telecommunication Infrastructure Company of Iran. This followed a meeting between Jahromi and Armenia’s Minister for Transport, Communication and Information Technologies. According to Jahromi, the contract covers the transiting of data from the Persian Gulf up to northern Iran and Armenia.
Gilan Province to Install 200km of Fibre Optic Cables
On 6 March, ICT Minister Jahromi announced the initiation of a project to install 200 kilometres of fibre optic cables in Gilan Province. According to Jahromi, 73% of these cables will pass through Rudbar, a village heavily damaged in an earthquake in 1990.
This can be taken as another statement of intent from the ICT Ministry to deliver infrastructure improvements to areas of Iran that have suffered from chronic underinvestment.
Iran Dismisses Cyber-Attack Claims Against Israeli Officials
On 21 March Bahram Ghasemi, the spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, dismissed claims from Israel that Iranian hackers have gained access to the mobile phones of a number of Israeli officials. The claim was first raised during the 2019 Israeli election campaigns.
Amidst growing regional tension in recent months, Iran and other regional powers have increasingly accused other countries of carrying out cyber attacks.
SMS-Based Emergency Broadcasting System Announced
On 25 March Iran’s ICT Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi announced a Short Message Service-Cell Broadcast service for emergency announcements.
The service would allow the ICT Ministry to send text messages to all mobile phones within a local area. The announcement comes in the aftermath of floods in Iran, during which a number of commentators and activists raised confronted Jahromi on Twitter over a lack of access to information about the crisis.
State-Backed Messaging App Announces New Educational & Emergency Services
On 28 March the state-backed domestic messaging app Gap announced that it has introduced two services. One for providing general emergency advice and donation services, and another for coordinating rescue in the event of a crisis. According to Gap, these services are ready for use by the Iranian Red Crescent.
During the floods in March, a number of Iranian policymakers and activists argued that the country’s filtering of social media may have negatively affected the national response to the floods.
ICT Ministry Claims Hundreds of Thousands of Iranians Discard iPhones
On 12 March Iran’s ICT Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi claimed that in the five days after Apple discontinued hosting a number of Iranian apps on its App Store on 27 February, 350,000 Iranians switched away from iPhones.
Apps Taken Down From App Store Myket on CDICC Orders
On 18 March the Iranian Android app store Myket announced that the CDICC asked the website to remove 12 apps, including Wizz, WeChat, Tango, and IMO. Myket complied with this order.
This is a significant move, and it should be noted that Rouhani’s cabinet members and pro-reform MPs should have the numbers to block any filtering proposals made by the CDICC (though the infrequency of meetings complicates such decision-making processes).