September was marked by continued political tensions between Iran, the US and Europe, with ongoing disputes regarding commitments and breaches of the JCPOA. Alongside the recent drone strikes against Saudi’s oil installations — which Iran has denied involvement in — there are few signs to suggest that regional tensions will be defused any time soon.
Meanwhile, Iran’s ICT Ministry has ramped up its efforts to improve relations with its neighbours through a series of appearances in regional conference this month. Iran’s ICT sector has experienced significant advances in recent years, to the extent that it is now a sectoral leader in the region. This advantage has given Iran the opportunity to extend its influence through sector deals and cooperation with its neighbours.
Back in Iran, it’s been a challenging month for ICT Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, who has faced a backlash after controversially blocking the appointment of RighTel’s new Managing Director, as well as criticism from the Supreme Council for Cyberspace (SCC) for his Ministry’s “misleading” reports about progress on the development of the National Information Network (SHOMA). Jahromi also appeared before the Iranian Parliament for his third public review from the body. Despite his other problems this month, his vote of confidence from Parliament demonstrates that he is continuing to build consensus around his agenda.
Jahromi Attends the “Regional Commonwealth in the Field of Communications” Conference in Kazakhstan
On 16 September, Iran’s ICT Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi Jahromi attended the Regional Commonwealth in the Field of Communication (RCC) Conference in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan. The RCC was set up in 1991 with the aim of boosting regional and global cooperation around ICT, satellite technologies and security. It is comprised of states from across the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. Full membership is extended to former Soviet states, with observer status granted to a number of states in Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, and three international satellite communications providers.
During his visit, Jahromi reportedly met with his Kazakh counterpart to promote greater cooperation between the two countries in connecting their digital economies. Jahromi also met with the Armenian Transport and Communications Minister, Hakob Arshakyan, to discuss support policies for tech startups.
Given the severe economic impacts of international sanctions, the ICT Ministry’s efforts to forge international partnerships and foreign investment has faced significant challenges. As a result, Iran is turning its attention to increased regional cooperation to maintain investments in infrastructure development and the wider digital economy.
Iran Offers ICT Support to Afghanistan
Iran’s former Deputy ICT Minister Nasrollah Jahangard attended the opening of Kabul’s Innovation Exhibition on 4 September. While there, he remarked that Iran is interested in “sharing knowledge” with Afghanistan in light of recent development in Iran’s ICT sector, and the shared cultural, religious and historical ties between the two countries. Jahangard did not provide specific details about the form that such support might take.
These recent regional visits are a demonstration of Iran’s continued prominence in the region’s ICT sector, and are designed to strengthen its economic relationships with its neighbours.
Iran’s Parliament Satisfied with Jahromi’s Answers On Key Policy Issues
On September 2, Jahromi was summoned to parliament by the conservative, pro-filtering Mashhad MP and Cyberspace Committee Chair Nasrollah Pejmanfar. Jahromi was questioned about the management of VPNs, the sale of counterfeit SIM cards, and new authentication systems for online users.
Jahromi responded by saying that these issues were outside the ICT Ministry’s jurisdiction. Pejmanfar’s dissatisfaction with Jahromi’s response led to a vote, with 102 MPs voting in Jahromi’s favour — a mark of parliament’s growing satisfaction with his performance.
The recent session is significant as it signals some movement from former parliamentary critics of Jahromi shifting behind his agenda, including Abdolreza Hashemzaei, Ghasem Ahmadi Lasheki and Mohammad-Javad Jamali Nobandegani.
Communication Regulatory Authority Rejects Appointment of RighTel Managing Director
Mina Mehrnoush, a former senior official and member of the Board of Directors for the telecoms company RighTel was officially confirmed as its Managing Director on 24 August. However, on 15 September the Communication Regulatory Authority (CRA) — headed by Deputy ICT Minister Hossein Fallah Joshaghani — passed fresh regulations requiring CRA approval for the appointment of Managing Directors and members of the Board of Directors of operators with more than 5,000 users. Subsequently, Mehrnoush’s appointment was annulled.
Following a complaint by RighTel, the annulment was suspended for further investigation by the CRA. Regardless, Mehrnoush resigned from her position due to the circumstances preventing her from performing her role effectively.
The CRA’s intervention to prevent Mehrnoush’s appointment was likely rooted in her threats to reveal RighTel’s financial situation under previous managers with links to Jahromi.
Sattar Hashemi Appointed as Jahromi’s Deputy Minister for Innovation and Technology
On 25 September, Sattar Hashemi was appointed as Jahromi’s Deputy Minister for Innovation and Technology, following the resignation of pro-reform Nasrollah Jahangard.
Jahangard reportedly resigned in order to stand as an MP in Iran’s upcoming parliamentary elections. Jahangard has been a longstanding Deputy Minister, who played a significant role in the expansion of ICT innovation and infrastructure expansion during the Khatami administration.
On 28 September, Jahromi also appointed Hashemi as the Executive Manager for a project titled: “Creating an Information and Telecommunications Corridor, and Developing Selected Applied Research”. The project’s exact mandate remains unclear.
SCC Committee Refutes Jahromi’s Claims of “80% Completion” of SHOMA
In last month’s Filterwatch, we reported on the publication of the ICT Ministry’s Annual Report, which claimed as one of their biggest achievements the completion of 80% of SHOMA’s underlying infrastructure. As we highlighted, the Ministry provided no evidence to support this statement.
According to a 16 September interview with former SCC Secretary and current member Mohammad Hassan Entezari, an SCC committee has refuted these claims.
Entezari stated that they do not accept the definition of SHOMA provided by the ICT Ministry, and that they cannot confirm the figures provided on infrastructure development. The SCC also rejects the Ministry’s claim that only 40% to 60% of Iran’s internet traffic is routed to external hosts, with the real figure around 80%, according to ISP data provided to the SCC.
These recent public criticisms are significant in that they demonstrate the continued impatience of senior officials with regard to SHOMA’s development, as well as continued ambiguity and confusion even at the highest levels about how ‘SHOMA’ is actually defined.
Increased Connectivity and Internet Coverage In Bushehr Province
On 23 September, Bushehr Province’s General Manager for Innovation and Communication Ali Somlian announced that local authorities had received special orders to expand the roll-out of high-speed internet infrastructure for non-urban areas, in order to increase job opportunities and to reduce rural-urban divides in service provision.
It was also announced that 98% of families in the province now have landline access. 88% of highways also now receive mobile phone coverage, with over half being connected to 4G networks.
The ongoing publication of ICT infrastructure updates demonstrate that the ICT Ministry continues to prioritise investment in infrastructure projects, which have taken up a central position in the implementation of SHOMA.
Jahromi Addresses Mobile Service Disruptions Via Instagram Live
On the evening of 3 September, Jahromi took to Instagram Live to explain disruptions in the quality of mobile phone services. During the almost hour-long video, Jahromi stated that disruptions to network quality were due to the “sharing of the 900 frequency band space with aviation systems”.
According to Jahromi, the frequency was shared with the operator Hamrah-e-Aval, which caused the quality of their 3G and 4G network to drop. He announced that a working group has been appointed to investigate the issue, following the receipt of a high volume of user complaints.
Once again, it is difficult to verify such claims relating to disruptions in network quality, especially given the lack of technical evidence provided by the ICT Ministry.
This Instagram Live engagement provides another example of Jahromi using social media to engage directly with citizens. His open engagement with relatively uncontroversial questions contributes to his efforts to cultivate a reputation for public accountability and transparency, although it is notable that he has deflected or failed to address broader questions around surveillance and online censorship.
Tehran FATA Chief Attends Fifth “Persian Web Conference”
The one-day Persian Web Conference took place on 3 September and was attended by the Head of Tehran’s FATA Branch Touraj Kazemi, as well as a number of ICT experts. Kazemi stated that the aim of the event was to “achieve increased cooperation between FATA and startups” in order to improve their security practices and reduce cybercrime.
It appears that FATA has recently scaled-up their involvement with startups, especially in light of continued growth in domestic apps and digital services. Increased cooperation between FATA and startups gives FATA an opportunity to increase its influence among the digital sector — an issue of concern, given the lack of rigorous data protections in place for users of domestically produced apps and digital services.
Kerman Province’s FATA Claims 91% of Cybercrimes Resolved
On 29 September, Commander Abdolreza Nazeri, the Head of FATA in Kerman Province reportedly stated that 91% of Kerman’s reported cyber crimes have been resolved, with 206 suspects summoned and arrested in relation to online criminal activities. We have previously highlighted and reported on increased activities by provincial FATA agencies, which continue to expand their operations across the country.
Iran Reportedly Among Top Four Countries in Internet Domain Growth
According to the Centre for (.ir) and (.ایران) Domain Registration (IRNIC) on 23 September, 1,113,163 Iranian domain names were registered domestically as of the end of Shahrivar (August/September) 2019, representing an increase of 113,000 in the last year. IRNIC also reported that Iran has the highest number of active domains in its region (presumably referring to the MENA region). With a growth rate of 45%, it is also among the top four fastest-growing countries globally.
(.ir) and Persian language websites have been promoted by the ICT Ministry for some time. It is much easier for Iranian authorities to manage and restrict domestically hosted sites, as well as to exert influence over content producers based inside Iran. It is at least partly for these reasons that the Iranian authorities have been so proactive in supporting the development of Persian-language digital content within the remit of SHOMA’s development.
Iranian Mapping and Navigation Application “Balad” Gains Popularity
Examples of Balad’s features, including “intelligent route-calculation, sat-nav and detailed Persian maps”
In recent years the ICT Ministry has repeatedly called for more domestic-made applications to be developed, offering extensive support to local startups. The free mapping and navigation app “Balad” has gained popularity with users, boasting 1,000,000+ installs on Google Play and 2,000,000 “active” installs on Cafe Bazaar.
According to an interview with Balad’s Engineering Lead, Keyhan Asghari on 18 September, the app features route planning via public transport, by car or on foot (the design and functions are very similar to Google Maps) to find the best route available to avoid traffic and problem spots. Asghari pointed out that they had previously worked with Tehran’s Traffic Police during busy holidays to resolve traffic and parking issues. He also called for more open data sharing by institutions, stating that “recently, the ICT Ministry has shared appropriate APIs with startups” and that others should do the same so that they can be put to “good use”.
It is unclear how the ICT Ministry collects and stores this data from the public, and this interview suggests that it is also sharing this data with third parties without clear consent or privacy protocols. The close relationship between the ICT Ministry and startups additionally makes them vulnerable to manipulation and misuse by policymakers, especially given that they store sensitive data about people’s daily lives and movements without their explicit consent. This is especially true of user location data, which has the potential to be utilised by intelligence and security services.
FATA’s Cybercrime Expert Warns of VPN “Security Risks”
On 17 September Lieutenant Younes Eisapareh, FATA’s Cybercrime Expert for Khuzestan Province stated that according to agency investigations, many users are falling victim to phishing scams after downloading VPNs. He stated that apart from allowing access to unsuitable and illegal materials, VPNs also expose users to viruses and malware, with their popularity making them a prime target for hackers and cybercriminals.
Unsurprisingly, he fails to mention that VPNs acquired from reliable and secure sources in fact improve and increase privacy and security. Instead, users should be better educated to spot potential online threats, and should understand how to mitigate them. Such misleading information from official channels increases the vulnerability of users online.
FATA Official Warns Against the “Spread of False News and Information” Online
On 3 September, Major Yousef Shakeri, FATA’s Provincial Chief in North Khorasan Province, warned against the publication and spreading of false news and information online. He stated that in order to avoid disturbing the public peace, users should only refer to official state-approved news sources, which he said focus on “accurate reporting”.
With arrests being made in relation to the spreading of “false” information through social media, FATA’s recent release may be signalling a new area of focus. We highlighted in our August Filterwatch that the ICT Ministry has shown interest in strengthening its relationship with state-approved news outlets. The details of such collaborations remain to be seen, but it is possible that arguments around the spread of false information online could be deployed to justify fresh restrictions on online media.