At the same time, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a decree on 6 September renewing the Supreme Council for Cyberspace’s mandate for four years.
Created in March 2013 to oversee the Internet and headed by the president, this council consists of senior military officers, leading government officials (including the parliamentary speaker, the head of the judicial system, and the ministers of culture, intelligence and information and communications technology), the head of the Revolutionary Guards, and several Internet experts.
By ordering the “dissolution of other councils and parallel bodies,” the decree has given the council unprecedented power. Its mission is to “facilitate the introduction of a national information network, a government priority, and to develop the judicial and police system necessary for the country’s cyberspace.”
Ayatollah Khamenei has also instructed the council to “ensure the network’s security, promote an Islamic way of life, protect the privacy of society’s members and effectively combat infiltration and abuses by foreigners.”
Ever since the moderate conservative Hassan Rouhani became president, Internet surveillance and control seem to have become more relaxed than they were under his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But a heated debate continues at the highest government levels about the degree to which the Internet should be controlled. At the same time, the authorities continue to develop Internet infrastructure for economic reasons.
The goal of creating a “Halal Internet” (a national information network) has not been abandoned. It has just changed name. The focus is now on “Intelligent Filtering,” which means ensuring that access to the Internet and above all to social networks is selective and controlled.
Access to the encrypted instant messaging app Telegram has been badly disrupted in Tehran and several other major Iranian cities since 29 August. The same day, Telegram said on its Twitter account that “Local network providers are limiting Telegram traffic in Iran. We are trying to find out the reasons.”
Deputy information and communications technology minister in an interview on 1 July: “We have sent a letter to Telegram to say that their network in Iran had problems and we invited them to discuss the problem.”
Asked on Twitter by Reporters Without Borders to comment, Telegram creator Pavel Durov replied: “@telegram has not entered any agreements with any government on this planet. No plans to.”
Information and communications technology minister Mahmoud Vaezi announced on 4 May: “The second phase of Intelligent Filtering has begun with the help of a foreign company and the use of the know-how of our country’s researchers. Intelligent Filtering is officially destined to protect society from immoral harm from certain websites and social networks.”
The same minister said on 9 April that “the recent disruptions on Instagram were due to the Intelligent Filtering involved on this network.” So the first phase of Intelligent Filtering was applied to this app, which is now disrupted and under the regime’s partial control. Wechat, WhatsApp, Tango and Viber have since then been “intelligently filtered.”
Whenever Intelligent Filtering has been implemented, Internet users have migrated elsewhere. In just a few months, thousands of Iranian Internet users switched to Telegram, which seemed safer and faster for instant messaging and for exchanging audio and video files.
Intelligent Filtering requires that the app companies more or less tacitly accept the conditions imposed by the government that wants to monitor and control the app’s users.
Unfortunately, none of the companies whose apps have been threatened and filtered by the Iranian authorities have so far official protested or informed the millions of Iranian Internet users about the potential danger of these disruptions, which are the result of the regime’s surveillance and control operations.
We point out that, without advanced technologies and without the cooperation of these companies, authoritarian governments would not be able to censor or spy on their citizens.
Officially censorship is supposed to protect the population from immoral content but in practice it has extended to political content and discussion of religion, and to websites about fundamental rights and women’s rights in particular. In fact, accessing so-called immoral websites is nowadays easier than accessing online content that has been censored for criticizing the regime.
The Iranian authorities keep a close watch on email and instant messaging. Since Rouhani took over as president in June 2013, around 100 netizens have been arrested and given long jail terms, in most cases on the orders of the intelligence services of the Revolutionary Guards.