Inviting Google into Iran’s filtered cyberspace
This week, the nuclear talks resumed and Iran has been signaling that the country’s potential easing of restrictions – if the negotiations succeed – will not be an easy and straightforward process. With the declining economy, Iran has been trying to balance between its desire to economically benefit from the current improvement in relations with the West, and to maintain previous levels of censorship and control over its cyber space.
This balancing game was recently seen when Iran announced that it will welcome Western IT companies, especially Google, to enter Iran’s market. According to local media outlets, Iran’s Deputy Minister of Telecommunications, Information and Technology, Nasrollah Jahangard, claimed that Iran is having talks with Google in order to bring some of company’s servers into the country. Talks were also held, he said, with various European and US internet companies. This announcement comes after earlier claims to create Iran-only search engine ‘Yooz’, that would cover Persian, and possibly later, English-language sources. “We don’t oppose all those people who are in the international market and want to provide services in Iran […] This is a normal thing in the world and it will be economical for [IT] companies to be closer to their main clients […]”. He added this would be possible if the company agreed to “accept Iran’s cultural conditions […] and be within the boundaries of Iranian law”, in an interview with Fars NA.
The Balancing Game
This apparent willingness to become not only part of international digital community, but also practical wish to participate in global IT markets comes at a time when Iranian authorities are pursuing people for ‘illegal’ internet activities, ending in arrests and interrogations. IRGC cyber expert, Mostafa Alizadeh said that, in addition to arrests earlier this month and in February, more people will be summoned for questioning. This follows the previous bloggers activists’ arrests in January and warnings by IRGC that Facebook activities will be tightly monitored under operation “spider”.
For instance, last week Atena Daemi, children rights activist was formally charged with “propaganda against the state”, ‘threat to national security’ and ’insulting Supreme leader’. Charges were based on her Facebook posts, where she defied wearing compulsory hejab, as well as references to her taking part in protest gatherings and listening to Shanin Najafi songs.
Further, as reported by HRANA, four bloggers in Tehran, Rahim Yazdi, Vahid Abolqasemi, Shahab Mousavi Majid Kabi were arrested after security forces raided their houses seizing their computers. Vahid was detained by plain clothed policemen in downtown Tehran, near Ferdowsi Square. Meanwhile in Ahvaz, fear of further detention of civil rights activists and bloggers continued, where two activists were reportedly detained on Tuesday 17th March. Their charges are yet to be confirmed.
‘Despite some limited improvements overall situation has worsened’
This invitation of international digital companies to enter Iranian market comes almost at the same time as the most recent human rights report, presented in Geneva by Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran. According to the report, human rights situation in Iran continues to get worse. The Special Rapporteur was critical on Iran’s achievements, despite hailing ‘some improvements’ since 2013 when Hassan Rouhani was elected. In his report he also noted that over the past year “budgetary allocations for the implementation of information technology and national security tasks by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security were increased by 87%, raising concerns regarding potential increased censorship”. According to the report, the authorities still detain and harass journalists and bloggers on “national security”, “propaganda against the system”, or “offending religious leaders” charges. This is shown with the arrest of activist, Majid Moghadam, in December 2014. He has been sentenced to 6 years in prison on the above charges and for ‘using illegal TV receivers’.
Under Rouhani, Iran’s spending on cyber security and censorship has drastically increased. Small Media’s February report notes that “When Rouhani took office, the funding allocation for cyber security was 42,073 million IRR. The following year, it shot up to 178,800 million IRR. It currently stands at a whopping 550,000 million IRR, an increase of over 1200% in just three years”.
It’s important that despite visible improvement in relations between Western countries and Iran, issues such as censorship and control over cyberspace, should not be left aside and forgotten, especially as steps have been taken to further reduce online free expression. Activists struggling to combat these issues must be given full support in order to create a safer space to freely express themselves.