Western media has been picturing Iran as one of the countries with heavy internet censorship. But if you dig more you will find out that basically, every country and many social media websites have internet censorship.
Before I go through the strategy of censorship in Iran let me shed some light on the origin of censorship. When we get to the Iran part you may find many similar concerns. That might change your perspective about Iran, since the western media has drawn a dark image out of Iran while in their home country there is a lot to be concerned with. Of course, I’m not all in for all the policies that we have in Iran right now, but in the past four years, a lot has changed in terms of internet policies and a lot has to be accomplished.
It all began in the USA
Internet censorship is the control of what can be accessed, published or viewed on the internet. According to National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), The first country which passed the first Federal law on internet censorship was the USA. These are some of the laws that concern with internet censorship:
- 1996: Communications Decency Act (CDA)
- 1998: Child Online Protection Act (COPA)
- 1998: Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)
- 2000: Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)
- 2000: Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA)
- 2008: Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA)
- 2016: Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
After a year, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down most of the CDA is an unconstitutional restriction on internet speech. Pay attention that some laws are crucial for society such as laws regarding the children and their safety. These were just the laws that have passed in the senate. But there are many proposed federal legislations that have not become law including:
- Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA)
- Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act
- Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA)
- Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)
- Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA)
- Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA)
- USITC Site Blocking
Even back in 2008, the popular social networking website MySpace agreed to work with the attorney generals of 49 states plus the District of Columbia to come up with a plan to combat material considered harmful minors, including pornography, harassment, bullying, and identity theft to better educate parents and schools about potential threats online and to work with law enforcement officials and to develop new technology for age and identity verification on social networking websites.
Censorship by institutions and companies
Companies may intentionally choose to restrict the content they make available or permit others to make available on the internet. Companies may be encouraged by government pressure or required by court order to remove or restrict internet access to content that is judged to be obscene (including child pornography), harmful to children, defamatory, pose a threat to national security, promote illegal activities such as gambling, prostitution, theft of intellectual property, hate speech and inciting violence.
Public and private companies which provide internet access for their employees or customers would sometimes limit the access in an effort to ensure it’s used only for the purposes of the organization.
Schools, libraries, telecommunications and internet service companies and military are some the examples of this. There are many cases that schools and libraries limit the students access to the internet.
YouTube Terms of Service include the statements: “YouTube reserves the right to decide whether Content violates these Terms of Service for reasons other than copyright infringement, such as, but not limited to, pornography, obscenity, or excessive length. YouTube may at any time, without prior notice and in its sole discretion, remove such Content and/or terminate a user’s account for submitting such material in violation of these Terms of Service”, “YouTube will remove all Content if properly notified that such Content infringes on another’s intellectual property rights”, and “YouTube reserves the right to remove Content without prior notice”
Facebook Statement of Rights and Responsibilities says: “You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence”, “You will not use Facebook to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory”, “We can remove any content or information you post on Facebook if we believe that it violates this Statement”, and “If you are located in a country embargoed by the United States, or are on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of Specially Designated Nationals you will not engage in commercial activities on Facebook (such as advertising or payments) or operate a Platform application or website.”
According to the definition of internet censorship, what Apple is doing to Iranian users is some form of internet censorship by a company. Apple has been removing Iranian apps from App Store and rejecting new updates from them. The company doesn’t allow the 7 million Iranians who have iPhones to update their apps and it’s restricting Iranian developers by saying: “We are unable to include your app, [App’s name] on the App Store. Under the U.S. sanctions regulations, the App Store cannot host, distribute, or do business with apps or developers connected to certain U.S. embargoed countries.”
In October 2009, military blogger C.J. Grisham was temporarily pressured by his superiors at Redstone Arsenal to close his blog, A Soldier’s Perspective, after complaining about local public school officials pushing a mandatory school uniform program without parental consent. In case of the telecommunication companies, In 2007, Verizon attempted to block the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America from using their text messaging services to speak to their supporters.
In February 2008, the Bank Julius Baer vs. WikiLeaks lawsuit prompted the United States District Court for the Northern District of California to issue a permanent injunction against WikiLeaks’ domain name registrar. The result was that WikiLeaks could not be accessed through its web address. This elicited accusations of censorship and resulted in the Electronic Frontier Foundation stepping up to defend WikiLeaks. After a later hearing, the injunction was lifted.
Looking at Iran
I went through all of these details about the USA’s policies on internet censorship to talk about the concerns that all the governments have over these issues. However, each nation and each country might have its own local issues, culture, and lifestyle. Another important factor is that when we talk about the internet censorship we should dig in to see the history of the internet in that country. In a nutshell, it was in 2011 that the third operator, Rightel, exclusively brought limited 3G network. In 2013 with Rouhani’s government in place, Iran witnessed a huge growth in its internet users. It was only in August 2014 that MCI received its 3G and 4G license along with Irancell after three years of Rightel’s exclusivity on providing 3G services in the country. After 2014 up until now internet users have grown massively in Iran.
With that being said, before 2013, there was a different approach to the internet censorship since there were not that many internet users. Back then, the whole thing seemed as a threat rather than an opportunity, as the new ICT Minister, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi put it on some occasions. Azari Jahromi, the youngest cabinet member in Rouhani’s new government is also trying to unblock YouTube, Blogger and recently he announced he is trying to unblock Twitter, as he is active on the platform. According to Azari Jahromi, Twitter is willing to study the terms that it would lead to unlocking the platform in Iran.
Supreme Council of Cyberspace
The main policy maker on Iran cyberspace is Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace which handles the internet censorship as well. It was in 2012 that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, signed an order establishing the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC). This order established the SCC as the body responsible for coordinating and implementing cyberspace policy in Iran. This body is tasked with formulating Iran’s Internet policies as well as devising plans to regulate its use in accordance with the Iran’s constitution. This was a turning point in Iran’s cyberspace simply because before that there was no centralized entity governing the cyberspace in Iran. Maybe the main reason that Instagram and Telegram never got banned in the first place was because of the insights that this organization brought to the table; that banning is not the answer and instead the government should invest in local content to build the culture. President Rouhani is the chief and Abolhassan Firouzabadi is the secretary of the council. Under the supervision of this council, Abolhassan Firouzabadi is leading National Center of Cyberspace to implement the guidelines and the policies of the Council through the ministries and organizations. The council mainly defines the strategies that the country should take which the Working Group on Identifying Criminal Content would execute.
Working Group on Identifying Criminal Content
Banning or removing the ban on websites and services is not in the hands of the government but in the hands of the Committee for Determining Instances of Criminal Content also known as Working Group on Identifying Criminal Content. This working group has 12 members including Attorney General as the Chairman of the Committee, Minister or representative of the Ministry of Interior, Minister or representative of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Minister or representative of the Ministry of Justice, Minister or representative of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, Minister or representative of the Ministry of Science Research and Technology, Minister or representative of the Ministry of Education, Chief of Police, An expert in ICT appointed by the Parliament Committee of Industries and Mines, a member of Judicial and Legal Committee who has been approved by the Parliament, Head of Islamic Propagation Organization and the head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.
The new approach
According to the recent interview of Abolhassan Firouzabadi, Secretary of Supreme Council of Cyberspace and Chief of National Center of Cyberspace, with ISNA, the new strategies for Iran’s cyberspace has been revealed.
The previous regulations governing Iran’s cyberspace were different before Rouhani’s administration which I have covered why. However, Rouhani’s government took a different approach. That’s because the internet is not a plus in the country anymore, it’s a must. It’s changing the way people live or do business. And it could heavily benefit the country and people by putting right regulations in place. With this fact in mind, let’s discuss how Abolhassan Firouzabadi is defining the new strategies for internet policies in Iran.
According to Abolhassan Firouzabadi, the current government is looking at the issue by creating a black list and keeping it short. Plus, there are plans to define different levels of access for different ages and different types of demographics.
“There are two ways to look at the issue at hand, one way is having a white list and the other way is having a black list. Some government depending on their activities and types of equipment prefer to have a white list and close down the rest of the internet such as North Korea,” Firouzabadi said. According to him, Islamic Republic of Iran has this mindset toward the issue but the approach is different depending on governments. However, Rouhani’s government is trying to keep the black list as short as possible.
Different demographics need different types of policy
“It’s not right to have the same policy toward different demographics, you can have the same policy for kids, adults, scientists or even journalists. that’s why we have sent an official letter to the Attorney General and asked the Working Group on Identifying Criminal Content to provide a more open internet for universities and press,” he added. Firouzabadi also gave some statistic regarding the use of VPN in Iran which is 3% of the total traffic. According to him, the use of VPN has dropped massively in the last two years. The reason behind this drop should be the keeping of some social media (Instagram) and messaging apps (Telegram) open as they consumed a heavy amount of traffic. Firouzabadi even told ISNA that banning VPN technology is not the answer since many financial institutes, banks, companies are using the technology for their communications.
Iran is changing its strategy toward the cyberspace. In the past four years, the changes were massive and have been welcomed by the people. And we hope it continues to move forward in the next four years to come.
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