Last Updated: Thursday, 28 August 2014, 16:05 GMT

Internet Enemies 2010 - Iran

Publisher Reporters Without Borders
Publication Date 18 March 2010
Cite as Reporters Without Borders, Internet Enemies 2010 - Iran, 18 March 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c21f67024.html [accessed 29 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Domain name: .ir
Population: 66,429,284
Internet-users: 32,200,000
Average charge for one hour's connection at a cybercafé: 0.95 US$
Average monthly salary: 407 US$
Number of imprisoned netizens: 13

Iran, one of cyber-censorship's record-holding countries, has stepped up its crackdown and online surveillance since the protests over the disputed presidential reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on June 12, 2009. The regime is demonizing the new media, which it is accusing of serving foreign interest. While a dozen netizens are serving out their terms in Evin Prison, bold Internet users are continuing to mobilize.

A smooth-running filtering system

Censorship is a core part of Iran's state apparatus. Internet surveillance has been centralized, thereby facilitating implementation of censorship. Internet service providers rent bandwidth to the Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI), controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (RGC). ICT is responsible for ordering the blocking of websites, which ensures a consistent censorship policy using filtering software developed in Iran. Blocking criteria are defined by the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Websites (CCDUW). The latter is comprised of members from several government branches and the judicial wing: the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the Ministry of National Security and Teheran's Public Prosecutor.

Censorship is done by combining URL blocking with keyword filtering, as deemed necessary according to changing current events. Among the keywords that have been blocked are the words "woman" in Farsi, "torture," and "rape," since August 2009, when one of the opposition leaders, Mehdi Karoubi, condemned the harsh treatment inflicted on incarcerated demonstrators in Kahrizak Prison.

The connection speed for individuals in Iran is slow and limited to 128 kb/s. By order of the Ministry of Communications, households and cybercafés are prohibited from accessing broadband. This technical obstacle limits Internet users' ability to upload and download photos and videos. Speeds can be even slower in periods of social unrest.

The authorities rely on the Iran Press Law, Penal Code and the Cyber Crime Act of 2009 to prosecute Internet users. Article 18 of the latter provides for a prison term of up to two years and a fine for anyone found guilty of "disseminating false information likely to agitate public opinion."

Site blocking

Iran applies one of the world's strictest filtering policies, which have been tightened even more since June 2009. To date, authorities claim to have blocked hundreds of thousands of sites. One thing is certain: thousands of websites and millions of associated pages are now inaccessible in Iran.

Iranian authorities had customarily filtered religious content and sites considered pornographic or obscene. But ever since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became President, the censorship has increasingly focused politically oriented websites, or those dealing with the women's rights movement or the defense of human rights. Blocked "feminist" websites include www.we-change.org, www.roozmaregiha2.blogfa.com, and www.parga1.blogfa.com. The reformers' website, www.baharestaniran.com, is also blocked, as is former president Khatami's website, www.yaarinews.ir.

Censorship has mainly affected news websites in the Farsi language, but the blocking of English sites is becoming more and more frequent. The BBC website broadcasts in Farsi have been jammed since January 2006, and the English version only since June 2009.

Just before the presidential elections in the spring of 2009, the authorities issued a list of instructions describing how the campaign should be covered and the responsibilities of Internet service providers. These instructions went into detail concerning some twenty banned topics, including: "endangering national unity" and "creating negative feelings toward the government." This is how news sites likely to contest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory – notably a dozen pro-opposition websites – were censored on the eve of the election.

Since June 12, censorship has reached unprecedented proportions. Officials are tightening their grip on all news media and means of communication that could be used to dispute the "victory." Pro-opposition websites such as www.sahamnews.info, or new websites like www.mizanews.com, are being targeted. Censorship is even affecting such pro-conservative sites as www.ayandenews.com, which highlights the divisions within the regime. Parlemannews - the official website of the reformist deputies' minority fraction – has been intermittently inaccessible since December 26, after the Supreme Council for National Security issued a press release banning any ceremonies commemorating Ayatollah Montazeri, an Iranian religious leader who died last December 20th (http://www.rsf.org/Enterrement-de-l-Ayatollah.html). Some blog platforms such as www.blogfa.com are not totally blocked, but certain individual blogs have been.

Social networks feel the full brunt of post-electoral censorship

Iran's regime considers social networks to be instruments of the opposition. Facebook and Twitter, which relayed the calls for demonstrations, have been continuously blocked since June 2009. MySpace.com and Orkut.com have received the same treatment.

Participative photo- or video-exchange websites were among the first hit: Flickr.com and YouTube.com are inaccessible. The authorities want to block the transmission via the Internet of photos taken with a cell phone. Dissemination of the photos of the young female demonstrator, Neda Agha-Soltan, was too harmful to the regime's reputation. The anonymous video received the prestigious American George Polk Award for Excellence in Journalism in February 2010, while Neda acquired martyr status. During the demonstrations of December 7, 2009, for example, some demonstrators' cell phones were therefore seized by security forces. An as yet undetermined number of people who were taking photos or filming the events with their telephones may have also been arrested.

Connection speed and tension indicator

Since the summer of 2009, as every new opposition event or potential demonstration approaches, Internet speed has been considerably slowed down in the country's major cities, to the point of falling to 56 kb, according to some Internet users contacted by Reporters Without Borders. The authorities' explanation is that it is caused by a technical glitch. They cannot allow themselves to cut off Internet access too long without jeopardizing the Revolutionary Guards' economic interests, but some temporary down times have been noted at critical moments, such as during the 31st-anniversary celebrations of the Islamic Revolution on February 12, 2010. Widespread connection slowdowns, as well as total or limited power outages in certain districts, were observed in several of Iran's largest cities, particularly in Tehran, Mashhad, Ispahan, Ahvaz, and Shiraz. Some cell phone companies would no longer allow users send SMS's after the night of February 6. Cell phone signal jamming had also intensified.

Surveillance

Internet user surveillance is made easier by the fact that all traffic has to pass through a single point controlled by the Revolutionary Guards. A cyber police force permanently monitors the population's online activities.

This partially explains the decision made on February 10, 2010 to suspend Gmail messaging service, which is very popular with the dissidents and more difficult to censor, especially since the emails are encrypted. But users can still access the messaging service via proxy servers. The authorities have announced that a national messaging service will be launched in the near future.

The Nokia-Siemens Network company is suspected of having collaborated with the authorities and facilitated their surveillance of dissidents. Reporters Without Borders asked it to provide explanations in an email dated June 29, 2009. The company acknowledged that it sold traditional surveillance equipment capable of tapping phone conversations to the Iranian Telecommunications Company, but denies that it sold to the latter software capable of intercepting data or monitor Internet activities.

A wave of round-ups target netizens

With some sixty journalists and bloggers behind bars and another fifty forced to seek asylum elsewhere, the Islamic Republic of Iran has become the largest prison in the Middle East – and one of the world's largest prisons – for journalists and netizens.

Some thirty netizens have been arrested since June 2009, and a dozen are still being detained. They include human rights blogger and activist Shiva Nazar Ahari (http://azadiezan.blogspot.com), who was arrested on December 20 last year, just before Ayatollah Montazeri's funeral. She had already been arrested on June 14, 2009 and held for five months. In Novembre 2008, cyber-dissident Mojtaba Lotfi had been sentenced to four years in prison and to five years of banishment for "disseminating opinions of the Grand Ayatollah Montazeri" and for promoting "anti-government publicity."

Several bloggers and journalistes have been charged with being "mohareb" (enemies of God). They may be facing the death penalty.

A blogger dies in detention

Omidreza Mirsayafi died while being detained, on March 18, 2009. The circumstances of his death have yet to be clarified. He had been given a two-year prison sentence in December 2008 by the Tehran Revolutionary Court for "insulting leaders of the Islamic Republic," and six months for "anti-government publicity," after he posted the offending articles on his blog.

The authorities retaliate via propaganda, infiltrations and cyber-attacks

The opposition has permeated the new media, but the regime was quick to find a way to convey its own message – thus triggering a war of words. A spokesperson for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards announced a plan to launch 10,000 blogs under the supervision of the paramilitary Basij forces. Young IT experts were recruited to form the Revolutionary Guards' "electronic arm." This Iranian Cyber Army is taking credit for cyber-attacks against numerous dissident websites.

Another method used is to reroute certain independent website home pages by linking them to pages on websites relaying government propaganda. The Balatarin website – one of the protest movement's online bastions – was victimized by this strategy.

The regime also created fake Internet websites supposedly run by political organizations or the foreign media, on which surfers are invited to send in emails, videos, and post notices about rallies. This method thus allows authorities to accuse Internet users of being spies acting on behalf of foreign organizations.

Cyber-dissidence is alive and well

The Iranian blogosphere is one of the most active on the planet. The country's young population is very enthusiastic about the Internet, not intimidated by censorship, and very familiar with such circumvention software as UltraReach and FreeGate, developed in the United States by the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, and which many Iranians use.

Another example of mobilization occurred when hundreds of Iranians dressed up as women wearing a "hijab" and posted a photo of themselves on their Facebook profiles in December 2009. That was their way of expressing support for Majid Tavakoli, an activist student arrested in Tehran and charged with disguising himself as a woman so that he could make a discreet getaway following a Tehran rally celebrating National Students Day, in which he made a speech. Surfers around the globe expressed their solidarity with the Iranian demonstrators, as did the Chinese netizens who launched the "#CN4Iran" (China for Iran) campaign on Twitter.

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