By Alexander J Martin, Technology Reporter
When Iranians protested in the streets to express their frustrations with the country's clerical regime, the first casualty of the demonstrations was their ability to freely receive and transmit information.
This happened before – back when Tehran sought to crush the Green Movement in 2009 – but it came at huge cost to authorities. Preventing the protesters from organising meant that communications between the government and critical agencies were disrupted, too.
On 30 December 2017, the government in Tehran again cut off its citizens' access to the internet as demonstrations erupted amid rising prices and unemployment. This time, authorities paid no such price.
After a decade of investment in an infrastructure project called the National Information Network (NIN), they had separated domestic and international internet traffic. On the eve of 2018, the regime revealed its ability to restrict the people of Iran to internet content approved by the state.
An in-depth report by the Centre for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has revealed how the state's development of the NIN has created a so-called "filternet" in the country. The NIN is designed to be just as malleable to the authorities as the country's print and broadcast media, and also offers Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) extensive surveillance abilities to monitor dissent.
"The capacity to restrict the people of Iran to state-approved content on a domestic internet has been a long-standing goal of hardliners in Iran – intelligence and security agencies, judicial officials, and the country's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei – who fear internet freedom and view the internet as a Western ploy to undermine the Islamic Republic," states CHRI.
Originally designed as a national internet and described by officials as a "halal" (lawful) system, the NIN has become a state-controlled network mediating all of its citizens' communications with the outside world.
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According to the UN, approximately 53% of Iran's 80m citizens are internet users. Roughly 60% of the country's population is under the age of 30, and there are estimated to be more than 40m mobile phone users in the country – almost all of whom are registered on messaging app Telegram, which offers encryption.
"Election campaigns are increasingly waged on Telegram, Twitter and Instagram," writes CHRI. "Social media networks serve as major platforms for Iranians to discuss political, social and cultural issues; and mobile applications are being rapidly developed for business start-ups."
Although the block on the global internet was lifted on New Year's Eve, Tehran continued to block Iranians' access to Instagram and Telegram, despite President Rouhani's promise to allow "space for legal criticism" of the regime.
CHRI explained: "Online communication has become particularly central to Iran's youth…they are an educated and tech-savvy population that has produced a vibrant and entrepreneurial tech community."
This increase in the use of the internet has surged since Hassan Rouhani's election as president in 2013. Mr Rouhani removed ceilings on the country's internet speeds and expanded the availability of 3G and 4G licenses for telecommunications providers.
Mr Rouhani supported greater internet access during his campaign in 2013, and a year later declared: "We ought to see [the internet] as an opportunity. We must recognise our citizens' right to connect to the World Wide Web."
CHRI notes his comments came as Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, warned the internet was "used by the enemy to target Islamic thinking."
Meanwhile, Abdolsamad Khorramabadi, the deputy prosecutor for cyberspace affairs, argued that "foreign cell phone messaging networks such as WhatsApp, Viber, and Telegram…[provide] grounds for widespread espionage by foreign states on the citizens' communications [and] have turned into a safe bed for cultural invasion and organised crime".
Upgrades to the country's telecommunications infrastructure and work to provide faster and cheaper internet services for its population have somewhat delivered Mr Rouhani's promises of access, but technological initiatives undertaken by the Iranian government – in particular development of the NIN – have significantly enhanced the state's ability to restrict, block and monitor internet use in Iran.
One of the results of segregating domestic and international traffic has been the ability to provide faster loading speeds for "approved" material hosted inside the country. While blocked material is completely inaccessible through the NIN, the lag-loading websites which aren't filtered, but are also not on the "approved" list, have encouraged Iranians to turn to domestic services.
There are currently more than 500 domestic websites in Iran, all of which have been approved by the state and are considered to be amenable to the clerical regime's control. Users of Iran's domestic internet pay access rates which are 50% to 100% lower than normal.
Unauthorised eavesdropping on computer communications is illegal in Iran, and violations carry a punishment of up to two years in prison or a fine. However, CHIR says the law does not define what authorised access is. In the West, the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and anonymity network Tor by internet browsers who wish to retain their privacy online is legal.
The last phase of the NIN, which is expected to be undertaken during Mr Rouhani's second term between 2017 and 2021, will require all internet users in Iran to have a single, unique identifier for accessing the internet.
Nasrollah Jahangard, Iran's deputy minister of communications, said at the opening of the first phase of the NIN that user authentication will be a requirement of the network. He explained: "All connections, whether fixed or mobile (phone), will have a single identity, and if the user lacks the identification, it will not be possible to provide him/her with service."
CHIR said that although the authentication process does not yet exist, when it comes into operation every Iranian's online activities – the articles they read and the people they contact – will be recorded, saved and made available to the Revolutionary Guard.
Mr Jahangard has denied that authentication means the same as monitoring, but this claim "is not accurate" according to CHIR. The human rights group added: "NIN access via National Identification Numbers will allow Iranian authorities to monitor the online activities and the information exchanges of users."
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Iranian authorities have used the cheaper access they provide citizens to particular news sources to attempt to redirect them to fake news websites which promote the regime.
"Because of the difficulty in censoring international search engines that use encrypted web traffic, the Iranian authorities have intensified their promotion of the NIN and all its various auxiliary tools and services such as the national search engines," CHIR notes.
"Iranians are bombarded continuously with advertising on state-run media that aggressively broadcasts the NIN's pricing incentives, increased speed, and (supposed) safety benefits."
Although denied by the regime, CHIR's research found that searching for "the names of civil activists or political prisoners, or topics such as the disputed 2009 presidential election, the serial killings of dissidents abroad during the 1990s, the mass executions of prisoners in the 1980s, or the financial corruption of current state officials, will all confirm that blocked information and state censorship remains robust in Iran".
They went on: "In effect, the national search engine provides a world parallel to the real world for Iranian users, in which only hand-picked information in support of the state narrative of events and individuals is delivered.
"The Iranian government's success in encouraging people to use the NIN will mean that in many areas – political, cultural, economic, scientific, social and even entertainment – Iranian users will be presented with filtered content, propaganda and intentional falsification by Iranian intelligence and security organisations, rather than real information."
The advocacy organisation has argued that Iranians' basic human rights are being violated.
"Internet access and privacy have become integral to the fundamental human rights of freedom of speech, expression and association, the right to access information, and the right to privacy," it said.
"Yet with the development of the NIN, which has advanced considerably under the Rouhani administration, Iranians are being subjected to an increasingly sophisticated system of online control, censorship and surveillance.
"Their ability to freely access information and a secure means of communications is becoming more difficult. Indeed, their very ability to access the global internet, and with it, information that is not state-approved, is now dependent upon state will.
"State-sponsored hacking in Iran is also accelerating and being routinely used to unlawfully obtain 'evidence' to prosecute individuals – without public protest or comment by President Rouhani.
"It is also imperative for governments worldwide, the United Nations, and the technology sector to fully support the Iranian people's efforts to access a free, open and safe internet, and the tools and services that support that access. Internet freedom and freedom are now one and the same."
CHRI called on international companies such as Google to lift the blocks they had imposed on Iranian users to enable them to circumvent Iran's NIN censorship and surveillance system.
It has called for the Iranian parliament to guarantee transparent rule of law in the country, and the international community to hold Iranian officials responsible for hacking conducted by state agencies with access to the NIN.
The full report by the Centre for Human Rights in Iran, titled Guards at the Gate, is available here.
Additional reporting by Joss Evans