Iran has been rocked by a turbulent few months. A winter of protests and political tensions have driven more crackdowns on freedoms while the US’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal has weakened an already unstable economy. As Hassan Rouhani’s government sees out its sixth year in power, the prospects of a failed nuclear deal, a collapsing economy and political instability are driving more instability in Iran.
Information and internet controls in Iran are complex. Much has changed within the past year: from the active filtering of Iran’s most influential communication platform, Telegram, to open debate about cutting off VPNs. However despite rising controls, Internet access in Iran remains porous; opportunities remain for Iranians to freely access the internet although they carry significant risks to citizens. Restrictions to free internet access have been strengthened by Rouhani’s minister of ICT, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi. Amid economic and political crisis, Jahromi has instigated regressive policies and programmes that have undermined freedom of expression online while publicly maintaining an image of defending freedoms online against hardliners.
This report charts a timeline to illustrate how major events in Iran have impacted major policy developments affecting freedoms online. Most notable are economic. Iran’s deteriorating economic state has triggered protests, a rise of cryptocurrencies and transparency initiatives by the government. However this report finds that the government despite their public commitment to internet freedoms are actively increasing restrictions. Their efforts to develop local messenger applications and block crypto exchanges demonstrate their motivations to seize control over all aspects of the Internet. While the blocking of Telegram was a blow to Internet access, usage on the platform has remained about the same, leaving many users to access the platform through insecure forks that can be censored and monitored by the government. It’s more important than ever for companies and the Iranian government, especially the Ministry of ICT, to be held accountable for their attacks on internet freedoms.