Tightening the net: Internet controls during and after Iran’s protests

Digital 7 min read
ARTICLE 19
Tightening the net: Internet controls during and after Iran’s protests - Digital

Photo: Telegram, Shutterstock.

Our latest brief on developments for internet freedoms in Iran comes at a particularly important time. Following the protests which broke out in December 2017,  this brief documents how Iranian authorities responded to the uprising through arrests, online surveillance, shutting down international traffic, and imposing temporary bans on Telegram and Instagram platforms. We look at what these developments mean for internet freedoms that have been promised by Rouhani’s administration. One thing is clear: the seeds planted previously for a closed ‘National Information Network’, controlled by the State can no longer be taken as a benign threat following the latest internet shutdowns, blockings, and unlawful arrests used by authorities to quell the protests.

As well as outlining the Iranian government’s obligations to deliver internet freedoms, we make recommendations to technology companies such as Google and Telegram to help make the Internet safe, secure and accessible for Iranians.

Our recommendations for Iranian authorities

The Rouhani administration faces a number of challenges if it is to keep its promise to protect Internet freedoms and encourage innovation.

Recommendations to the Information and Communications Technology Ministry

  • Cease policies that encourage the nationalisation of content and platforms for the purposes of controlling information flows;
  • Cease the ICT Ministry’s practice of giving discounts to those using local social media, in breach of the net neutrality principle;
  • Engage with the judiciary and the National Security Council to end the restrictive approach to freedom of expression in Iran, especially in relation to its circumvention of processes and procedures to implement censorship and online controls;
  • Ensure transparent documentation of censorship decisions, both through internal procedures, and from parallel organisations such as the judiciary and the National Security Council, and the Committee Charged with Determining Offensive Content;
  • Answer to reports of violations to access, such as throttling (or slowing access) on Telegram; and
  • Document and publicly share communications and negotiations with technology companies such as Telegram.

For the Supreme Council of Cyberspace

  • Cease existing censorship and threats to further censor platforms;
  • Work with the National Security Council to ensure national laws and regulations in terms of Internet policy are followed, and end all arbitrary calls for controls based on ‘national security’; and
  • Stop encouraging the use of local platforms and instead encourage local development of technology without intimidation or violations of international standards on freedom of expression, including net neutrality.

For the judiciary

  • Recognise the right of Telegram channels and other bodies and individuals to seek, receive, and impart ideas and information of all kinds, regardless of frontiers according to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (additional regard needs to be paid to international human rights standards that condemn interruptions to access to information online);1
  • Ensure full respect of international human rights standards, by conducting prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations into deaths in custody, all allegations of torture and other forms of ill-treatment, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading conditions of detention;
  • Ensure due process in Internet decision-making by strictly following the procedures for implementing censorship online (notwithstanding the fact that Computers Crimes Law are in themselves problematic and need to be brought in conformity with international standards);
  • Ensure the protection of the right to presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial and due process;
  • Implement the Criminal Code (Article 104) and the Computer Crimes Law (Article 48) when accessing information from prisoners;
  • Denounce any practice by the Revolutionary Guards of sharing private information from people in custody with the state media in order to smear and influence their case (s) and compromise the use of criminal procedures2; and
  • Work according to the highest standards of impartiality and always make decisions in full independence, notably from the paramilitary organisation of the Revolutionary Guards

For Iran’s telecommunication industry

  • Decline to cooperate with government demands to cut off foreign traffic.For foreign technology companies:Companies such as Telegram to provide documentation and be transparent regarding the Iranian government’s claims of communication and negotiations with companies;
  • Provide transparent explanations on how Telegram’s Iran based infrastructure was affected during the period of censorship (regarding the content delivery networks (CDNs) that are based in the country); and
  • Google must work to either attain a General License, or a Specific License under the Office of Foreign Assets Control regulations for services like Google App Engine in Iran.

For Iranian Internet users

  • Use Iranian platforms for Telegram alternatives such as ‘Soroush’ with awareness that there is no privacy guarantee. Opt for alternatives such as Whats App, Signal, Wire, or iMessage. In times of heightened controls, seek safe circumvention tools to access communication tools over using Iranian alternatives;
  • Make use of features such as ‘ephemeral’ or disappearing messages on platforms such as Signal, Wire, and Telegram to avoid carrying logs of communications or media that could help Iranian authorities incriminate you. On tools without these features, remember to delete old message logs;
  • Practice digital hygiene as much as possible. Erase old invoices and documents from your email; and
  • Never handover passwords to accounts. Utilise encryption technologies like PGP which will make the text of your communications on your emails illegible in case of takeovers by authorities.

Read the brief in full.

Read our blog on the Iranian government’s response to protests.