Understanding Iran’s Emerging Internet Policy Agenda

Under ICT Minister Jahromi, Iran’s internet policy agenda is becoming far more coherent — and far more concerning. In this edition of Filterwatch, we explain how we’re planning to meet the fresh challenges emerging in Rouhani’s second term.

Kaveh Azarhoosh
Nov 2, 2018 · 12 min read

At the close of 2018, the Iranian state has accumulated nearly a full decade of experience in suppressing free expression and access to information online.

This record of heavy-handed information controls started in earnest in 2009, when in the aftermath of the post-election protests, the Iranian state imposed heavy online censorship, started to surveil citizens on a mass scale, and undertook sustained attacks on online activists.

In this difficult climate, a tenacious community of campaigners, hackers, and technologists emerged, and started to work together to support freedom of expression and access to information for Iranian internet users.

It was in this challenging context that we first launched Filterwatch, back in January 2013.

The aim of Filterwatch has always been to document the developments that affect free and secure online expression and access to information in Iran. Our focus throughout the years has been on three areas:

  • Technical Protocols shaping the Iranian internet (i.e. the technical development of Iran’s ‘National Internet’);
  • Practices by internet users and service providers (i.e. users’ experience of using messaging apps);
  • Policies developed to guide the regulation and development of Iran’s internet (i.e. our assessment of slated internet regulation bills in the Iranian Parliament).

Due to the lack of clarity in Iranian policymaking processes, and the urgency of resisting state filtering and technical attacks, we generally focused our efforts on understanding developing protocols and user practices rather than digging into the development of state policies.

Five years into Rouhani’s presidency we believe that Iran’s formerly messy and incoherent processes of internet policy formulation have undergone some significant changes, with ICT Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi and his team beginning to articulate a more coherent — and sometimes alarming — vision for the development of the internet in Iran.

As a consequence, we believe it’s likely that our community will face a host of emerging challenges and opportunities in our struggle to advance the free and secure flow of information in Iran.

In light of this emerging new policymaking regime in Iran, we believe we can best serve our community, our partners, and the cause of internet freedom in Iran by shifting our focus to mapping and analysing Iran’s policy-making efforts in the months ahead.

In this issue of Filterwatch we’ll outline why we think this shift is important, and how we’ll be adjusting our approach in the months ahead.

For many observers, the first term of Rouhani’s presidency was defined by the marathon nuclear negotiations between Iran and the 5+1. However, for those of us interested in Iranian ICT policy, Rouhani’s first term offered a clean break from the draconian filtering policies developed during Ahmadinejad’s eight years in office.

During his initial campaign, Rouhani was perceived to offer a markedly more socially liberal platform than his predecessor, and many were hopeful that his presidency would see Iran transform its approach to the internet. The appointment of Rouhani’s close ally Mahmoud Vaezi to the ICT Ministry — who was often seen as a rare ally of reformists as ICT Minister — also got many people’s hopes up. During Vaezi’s tenure at the ICT Ministry, investment into the ‘National Information Network’ (or SHOMA) increased significantly, resulting in a dramatic expansion of connectivity and accessibility nationwide, as well as a marked improvement in Iran’s bandwidth.

Mahmoud Vaezi — ICT Minister 2013-17 — was considered an ally to Iran’s reformists while in office.

It was during this period that the consensus among state elites began to break down around the desirability of filtering specific communications apps, with the judiciary and the elected government pulling in different directions, at least publicly. After meetings of the Filtering Committee (CDICC), Vaezi would frequently warn about the judiciary’s desire to see apps such as Telegram filtered. Such regular warnings fed the popular perception that Rouhani’s administration offered the last line of defence against conservatives’ attempts to filter popular online platforms.

There are notable contradictions in the ICT policy agenda put forward during Rouhani’s first term. On the one hand, tension seemed to be growing between different branches of the state with regard to short-term internet policies, and the filtering of individual platforms and websites.

On the other hand, Rouhani’s government made some significant progress in defining and delivering SHOMA. Although during this time hardline conservative MPs, judiciary officials, and even the Supreme Leader heavily criticised the Rouhani administration’s ICT policy agenda, it seems unlikely that Vaezi’s ICT Ministry could deliver such high levels of investment without having attained a degree of establishment consensus about the development of SHOMA, and the future of the internet in Iran.

Given the four years of frosty relations between the Vaezi ICT Ministry and judiciary officials, as well as explicit references to internet freedom in Rouhani’s 2017 reelection campaign, many Iranian voters were hoping for his government to offer strong opposition to any further information controls.

However, soon after the elections those hopes were dashed by the appointment of Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi as ICT Minister, replacing Vaezi after his promotion to Chief of Staff. Jahromi struggled to gain the confidence of Parliament, only narrowly being confirmed in the face of concerns about his past involvement with Iran’s security forces in the aftermath of the 2009 protests.

Following his confirmation battle, we argued that Jahromi’s appointment was likely to signal a realignment in ICT policy-making. We anticipated that his long-standing association with elements of Iran’s security apparatus could lead to a thaw in the relationship between the judiciary and Rouhani’s government.

In reality, this thaw has progressed at a pace beyond our expectations, with policy-making organisations such as the CDICC and SCC enjoying greater prominence and operating on a more consensual basis than they did under the Vaezi Ministry. Although it’s unclear whether Jahromi is the architect of this new consensual approach, or merely its executor is unclear, though he does seem entirely comfortable engaging with the judiciary and conservative elements on these policy-making bodies.

With the regularity of SCC meetings stepping up significantly in the last two years (with meetings taking place on a near-monthly basis), the publication of a number of flagship policy papers, and plans to bring forward key items of ICT legislation, it seems that the Jahromi Ministry has made significant progress toward formalising a distributed policy-making process among the main centres of political power in the Islamic Republic.

Through bodies such as CDICC and SCC, the main centres of power in the Islamic Republic — the three branches of government, the security forces, and institutions operating under the Supreme Leader — deliberate policy development and craft a vision for the future of the internet in Iran. Of course, it’s crucial to note that the Supreme Leader’s representatives have significant influence in all of these institutions and processes shaping internet governance in Iran.

In this sense, Iran has designed its own version of multistakeholder internet governance — one that lacks representation from civil society, internet users, and businesses — but which formalises a policymaking procedure among the political elite which facilitates structured debate and consensus-building on key questions of policy and infrastructure development in Iran.

A 2015 meeting of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace. The SCC met very irregularly throughout President Rouhani’s first term in office.

Apart from the fixed membership of these bodies, the current agenda of this system of ‘state-directed multistakeholderism’ appears to be guided by the principles of expanding connectivity while insulating against perceived cultural and political ‘harms’ embodied in the global internet — principles hardcoded into the foundations of SHOMA.

With the various segments of the Iranian policy-making establishment settling into their roles in this process, we are starting to observe some fundamental differences between the emerging model and the slow, messy process it replaced.

Over the last year, we have witnessed two major trends in ICT policy making in Iran. Firstly, it appears that the diverse array of decision-makers participating in the SCC and CDICC insulates the bodies from radical change — even if presidential or parliamentary elections result in changes in membership, a great deal of continuity is still preserved. As a consequence, documents and policies backed by the SCC develop legitimacy from being backed by a broad cross-section of the Iranian policy-making elite, despite not necessarily being representative of the optimal policies of all its members at all times.

Secondly, the emerging policy-making process has added a degree of transparency and accessibility that was previously absent. For example, the publication of a letter co-signed by a number of MPs and cabinet ministers in May 2018 served as strong evidence that Rouhani’s administration has developed an alliance with pro-reform representatives of parliamentary committees, thereby building a majority on the CDICC. This limited, yet welcome level of transparency creates an opportunity for campaigners, civil society, and the private sector in Iran to push for further accountability on the part of the state.

As a result of this emerging consensus, the policies shaping internet infrastructure development and user practices are no longer an afterthought on the part of the state, and so neither should they be considered an afterthought by those committed to fighting for internet freedom.

Currently, there are a number of policy papers, official documents, and draft bills available that stand ready to shape the future of the internet in Iran. Up until this point, many of these documents have not received the attention they deserve.

We believe that if the new emerging model of consensus-based policymaking increases the likelihood that these proposed policy documents will actually be carried through and implemented as state policy, we must step up our efforts to understand, analyse, and scrutinise their consequences for internet users in Iran.

For example, in September 2017 the SCC introduced a document outlining the implications of SHOMA for Iran’s Internet, and discussing how its achievements should be consolidated. In recent months Iran’s ICT Minister has published drafts of five new landmark ICT policy bills, which are slated to be introduced to parliament over the next two years. The SCC has also published a draft of regulations for domestic messaging apps. All of these documents contain significant details about Iran’s vision and intent for the regulation of online communications and digital media.

In coming issues of Filterwatch, we will spend time deconstructing these proposed bills, and assessing their implications for user privacy, freedom of expression and access to information in Iran.

The emerging policy-making process in Iran appears to provide a venue for Iranian policy-makers’ opposing visions for the internet to be debated and reconciled on a policy-by-policy basis, thereby building consensus over the future shape of the internet in Iran.

For observers, this process also provides an opportunity to study and anticipate what form the Iranian internet might take in the coming years. Despite the fact that we are far from the levels of accountability and openness that would give Iranians a full picture of decision-making, the growing transparency of ICT policy-making institutions provides us with greater opportunities than ever before to understand Iran’s emerging policy agenda.

However, these opportunities have not been properly exploited by those outside the policy-making process, whose role it should be to apply scrutiny to emerging policy documents. Pro-reform politicians have been silent other than objecting to the filtering of individual sites or platforms, and although MPs have responded to cases of filtering on a reactive basis, they have so far failed to develop coherent criticisms or undertake meaningful scrutiny of any of the proposed ICT bills.

There is also a danger that, in the absence of consistent and coherent policy discussions, policy makers and officials take advantage of this lack of scrutiny, and can easily deflect attention from their influential policy decisions by making contentless headline-grabbing statements, as they have done frequently over the past five years.

In the upcoming issues of Filterwatch we will aim to fill this gap ourselves, and to provide meaningful scrutiny of the roles played by different state entities in formulating key ICT policy decisions. It is our hope that by offering greater clarity on how these processes operate, then greater pressure can be brought to bear against key influencers in the process.

While we are keen to step up our efforts to highlight the policies shaping Iran’s internet ecosystem, we can’t ignore the fact that the emerging model has not entirely limited the arbitrary practices of certain players. Only in the last month, freshly released images of Saeed Malekpour — who has now served a decade in prison — offered a powerful reminder of the heavy-handed approach of Iran towards perceived digital activists. On 6 October, the Iranian Cyber Police (or FATA) announced that an individual had been arrested in the city of Saravan for publishing “fake news” on their social media accounts.

Nor do these ‘multistakeholder’ bodies enjoy complete authority over major policy decisions — institutions can still intervene unilaterally, and arbitrarily. After all, Telegram itself was banned by a judicial order — not a decision made in the CDICC. To this day, unofficial versions of Telegram (such as Talagram) put the privacy and security of Iranian users at serious risk, and yet find themselves immune from state filtering in Iran.

It remains impossible to talk about Iranian internet by studying policy in isolation from the technical protocols governing its evolution, and the user practices shaping its environment. In our analysis we will continue to be mindful of the influence of the security forces, the judiciary, and other actors are shaping the internet in Iran, and will work with our partners to better understand and respond to changing patterns of user engagement online.

When we started producing Filterwatch, the dominant discourse was that the internet was an overwhelmingly liberating force, with untold emancipatory potential for civil society. Yet this utopian, tech-determinist view about internet freedom has never shaped our work.

Instead, our work is guided by a belief in the social, economic and political rights of Iran’s citizens. This approach leads us to advocate for citizens’ freedom to use the internet without fear or restriction, but also their freedom from privacy-limiting online services developed by the state.

Our emphasis on socio-economic rights means that our focus may at time swerve away from the headlines surrounding Telegram’s filtering, and instead focus in on the impact of stories that have until now unfolded on the margins, such as FATA’s pervasive ‘anti-vice’ campaigns, or the economic impacts of Iran’s ICT policies in communities that have long felt the neglect of central government.

Our approach could put us in conflicting positions at times too: we have to be passionate, vocal supporters of net-neutrality, and guard against the threats posed by SHOMA. But we also cannot shy away from highlighting the massive investments in infrastructure that were made under SHOMA, which have substantially expanded internet connectivity for Iran’s citizens.

By working to equip digital rights advocates, activists, and members of Iran’s burgeoning tech sector with the facts they need to know about Iran’s emerging policy agenda, it is our hope that they will feel empowered to start influencing key decision makers, and to respond to emerging threats as they arise.

This article is taken from Small Media’s September/October 2018 edition of Filterwatch, available here.


Monitoring online censorship and internet policy in Iran

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