Filterwatch — November 2019

This November, Iran endured a near-total internet shutdown imposed by government authorities for almost ten days. In this edition of Filterwatch, we document the response.

Melody Kazemi
Dec 10, 2019 · 8 min read

This November, Iran endured a near-total internet shutdown imposed by government authorities for almost ten days. The shutdown came as a response to a wave of protests following the sudden announcement of petrol price increases, which resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths and thousands injured and arrested, according to Amnesty International.

We published a special “Shutdown Monitor” edition of Filterwatch,, which covered events and updates between 14 November, when initial network disruptions were reported until Sunday, 24 November, when users were gradually reconnected to the internet. The first to be reconnected were universities, hospitals and banks, with ordinary citizens being gradually reconnected later on — starting with Hormozgan on 21 November, and finally starting to lift in Sistan & Baluchestan on Friday 6 November.

In light of these events, in his month’s Filterwatch we will cover some of the major highlights concerning the internet shutdown, as well as some of the reactions as the internet was gradually reconnected. The shutdown has certainly given us plenty of insights into the government’s technical and infrastructural capabilities to shut down access to the global Internet, as well as a better understanding of progress in the National Information Network. Though Iran may now be reconnected to the global internet, the recent events have left an indelible mark on the landscape of Iran’s internet, making it impossible for it to return to its former condition.

National Security Council Orders Restrictions on Access to the Global Internet

Source: NetBlocks’ Iran blog

On 17 November it was reported that Iran’s access to the international internet had been restricted by an order of the National Security Council. The near-total internet shutdown meant that by the same evening, the majority of users had been disconnected from the internet, while a very small minority may still have had slow, or limited internet access. This is demonstrated by a map of online and offline internet “probes” provided by Amir Rashidi, Internet Security and Digital Rights Researcher at the Center for Human Rights in Iran.

Source: A map of Iran-based probes’ internet connectivity, from the Center for Human Rights in Iran’s Internet Security and Digital Rights Researcher Amir Rashidi

After Shutdown, Iran’s ICT Minister sanctioned by the US Treasury

We have extensively covered Jahromi’s political activities and his role in advancing the development of Iran’s National Information Network in previous editions of Filterwatch.

Official Virtual Private Network Operators will be Established

According to Firouzabadi, CDICC is currently in the process of preparing the required regulations and instructions for establishing different levels of access to the internet and filtering, which will be implemented “as soon as possible”. As part of this, “official” VPN providers will be established and regulated by the ICT Ministry who will monitor their sale according to users’ needs. This will also means new legislation regarding the legal and illegal sale of VPNs will also be implemented to regulate the VPN market in Iran.

We have already written about the future landscape of Iran’s “layered internet”, and the new laws around official VPNs form part of this process. Though Iranians mostly use VPNs to circumvent filtered content, they are also important tools in providing anonymity for users. The government’s plans to provide state-regulated VPNs will pose enormous risks to users’ online privacy.

Without Digital Content and Services, the National Information Network “Cannot Become a Reality”

According to Firouzabadi, the ICT Ministry has so far only delivered on 80% of the underlying network infrastructure of the NIN, but that it has not yet created the localised content, information and services which compose the remainder of the project. He stated that while international messaging apps, email services and search engines are being used, it cannot yet be said that the NIN has been fully implemented.

He also stated that a draft “Digital Services Bill”” has been prepared by the SCC, which aims to expand domestic digital services. He added that “the private sector will be consulted” to produce the final draft.

Government Recommends Domestic Internet Services and Apps during the Internet Blackout, Reports of User Increases for Domestic Services Emerge

The article went on to suggest that given the continued availability of domestic online services, search engines, and domestically hosted email services, that dependency on international services would continue to diminish. On 30 November, Mehr News also reported that the domestic navigation app “Bala” announced a 50% increase in its user base during the internet disruptions. Balad also has an offline search feature available which increased the app’s popularity while internet connections were disrupted.

Meanwhile, Amir-Ali Kheirandish, the Board Chairman of the domestic search engine Parsijoo also announced that there has been a 200% increase in usage of the platform during the shutdown period. He added that the search engine did not have the capacity to deal with the level of demand it received, claiming that this was due to a combination of hardware issues and network disruptions.

These domestic applications all have major security implications for users. As all of their users’ data is hosted in Iranian data centres, users’ personal data and communications are potentially at risk of being exposed to surveillance by government and security forces, given the absence of any meaningful online privacy protections in Iran.

Fars News Accuses BBC Persian of Inciting Unrest Via Telegram

Such articles comprised part of the government’s ongoing effort to delegitimise international criticism of Iran’s violent crackdown on protestors.

Iranian Newspaper Describes Shutdown as a “Relatively Successful Experiment” of the National Information Network

Front page of Jam-e-Jam Newspaper on 20 November

On 20 November, the front page of the IRIB-owned Jam-e Jam newspaper described the ongoing internet shutdown as a “relatively successful experiment” of Iran’s National Information Network.

Based on reports from earlier that week, key elements of domestic banking infrastructure, as well as domestic messaging apps appeared to be largely (if not completely) immune from the effects of the internet shutdown. However, as we have previously reported, there are still major disputes between the SCC and the ICT Ministry about the progress of the NIN in relation to both infrastructure development and content localisation.

Though we cannot independently these claims at this time, these reports suggest that progress may be slower than the government’s expectations, and that further work will need to be undertaken to make the NIN fully operational. However, it is clear that the project is still an urgent priority for the government, with the events of the shutdown only likely to increase pressure on the ICT Ministry to fully implement all aspects of the NIN.

Iran’s Central Bank: “Internet shutdowns have not caused any problems for the banking network”

29,500bn IRR Loss to Businesses as a Result of Internet Shutdowns


For more of Small Media’s work exploring the internet policy landscape in Iran, check out the rest of Filterwatch — either here on Medium, or on the Small Media website.

Filterwatch

Monitoring online censorship and internet policy in Iran

Melody Kazemi

Written by

Researcher at Small Media

Filterwatch

Monitoring online censorship and internet policy in Iran

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