Iran: Digital freedom and protest in the UN’s Fact-Finding Mission report

Iran: Digital freedom and protest in the UN’s Fact-Finding Mission report - Civic Space

International Women's Day in Brussels, Belgium, 8 March 2023. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis/ Shutterstock

The UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Islamic Republic of Iran report was published in full on 19 March, and includes significant research and submissions from ARTICLE 19.

The report, submitted to the Human Rights Council, outlines the crimes committed by the Islamic Republic during Iran’s Woman, Life, Freedom uprising, which began in September 2022.

In particular, ARTICLE 19’s work and expertise informed the ‘Digital Space and Protest’ section of the Fact-Finding Mission report, which investigates the impact government actions have had on digital freedoms during the protests, focusing on internet shutdowns, censorship, surveillance, and the criminalisation of online expression.

ARTICLE 19 has been extensively monitoring the extent of internet controls in Iran for many years. We unpacked the anatomy of the November 2019 internet shutdowns, and our 2020 Tightening the Net Report provided an understanding of and outlined the system for internet infrastructure and governance in Iran. This included reporting on the increase of shutdowns through Internet Service Providers (ISPs) during protests and where internet governance is treated as a ‘national security’ matter.

Following the unrest that followed the death in custody of Mahsa Jhina Amini in September 2022, ARTICLE 19 monitored the range of tactics the Iranian government used to suppress digital rights across Iran, and in particular how they related to protests. We conducted extensive research into digital repression, including authorities’ use of arrests and torture to penalise online dissent and expression, new censorship tactics of censorship, internet disruptions and shutdowns; and the focus on surveillance and monitoring.

ARTICLE 19’s 2023 Tightening the Net analysis focused on attacks on mobile internet connections, censorship, efforts to silence dissent online, cutting off circumvention tools and surveillance and tech-enabled monitoring of protesters and women.

We have also documented how the government deploys the User Protection Bill to implement this repression, and significant work on this began in 2021, when we documented advances in technology being developed to disable virtual proxy networks (VPNs), including Deep Packet Inspection. We continue this documentation. 

In July 2023, ARTICLE 19 considered Supreme Leader Ayatollah’s calls for even greater restrictions on digital space in Iran, in which he directly addressed individuals and institutions with the authority to curb online freedoms in practice.

Gender and digital rights

ARTICLE 19’s analysis of gender and digital rights also contributed to the Fact-finding Mission report, including analysis of the draft bill on Discretionary Punishments, which imposes discriminatory, degrading and humiliating compulsory veiling on women and girls and seeks to expand the scope of the ‘offences’ in connection with compulsory veiling. This includes appearing in public without a veil, participating in assemblies, and publishing content online.

ARTICLE 19 has also highlighted the dilemmas and complexities of protecting the right to expression and to protest while preventing harm in Iran, where restrictions on these rights are so heavily restricted. As part of this work, we analysed a particularly complex case about freedom of expression online, making a submission to Meta’s Oversight Board about  an Instagram post that featured a video of an unveiled Iranian woman being confronted by a man who identified himself as a judicial officer and accuses the woman of being a criminal for failing to wear a hijab.

The report’s recommendations to the private sector also underscores the importance of our work:

  • In line with the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, private companies have responsibilities to respect human rights, and should seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impact that are directly linked to their operations, products or services, including through their supply chains.
  • Given their impact on human rights, social media companies must invest in consistent transparency reporting with a view to enabling the public and the media in a timely manner about content restrictions requested by States and about organised hostile operations. Social media companies should have effective remedy processes in order to guarantee accountability.
  • Social media platforms must ensure safety for their users, including by strengthening community standards, taking into account the risks faced by users in the Iranian context, ensuring that moderation of content is proactive and not overly reliant on reporting of breaches by users or third parties.
  • These companies must establish a transparent, well-resourced trusted partner programme specific to emergencies and develop an accountability mechanism on the criteria for flagging, removal and public reporting in consultation with Iranian and expert civil society groups.
  • Companies must monitor and dismantle unauthentic coordinated behaviours and address online hate speech, especially against women, LGBTQI+ people and minorities.

We welcome these recommendations, as they are in line with our platform strategy in the Middle East and North Africa region. ARTICLE 19 has been at the forefront of advocating for content moderation improvements in the Persian language to both protect freedom of expression and prevent further harm in contexts of state-directed harassment and privacy violations. Our work with trusted partner programmes have been at the frontline of ensuring companies are protecting protesters with rapid response support. We continue to push for these improvements, as our work, especially during the Mahsa Jhina Amini movement, has shown how many lives were protected and saved when companies prioritise the safety of their users. There is much more work to be done in this realm. We continue to engage with companies, work through various United Nations mechanisms, as well as through Meta’s Oversight Board. We hope that the work of the Fact-Finding Mission on Iran continues to symbiotically work with us to push the needle further.