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Iran To Tighten Grip On Cyberspace, Messaging Apps

IRAN -- Iranian MPs chant anti U.S. slogans at the parliament in Tehran, May 9, 2018
IRAN -- Iranian MPs chant anti U.S. slogans at the parliament in Tehran, May 9, 2018

Some 95 members of Iran's parliament (Majles), including 22 prominent reformists, have tabled a motion on Sunday December 2 that would tighten Iranian government's grip on domestic and foreign messaging services. The reformists have been harshly criticized on social media for the move.

The bill is to be annexed to article 67 of Iran's sixth development plan that is generally about what Iran calls the National Information Network, an intranet that would limit Iranians' access to the global Internet network.

Iran has been tightly limiting and controlling access to the internet for nearly two decades; both for political reasons and also to “shield” Iranians from “corrupt influences”, meaning sexual and Western cultural content.

The Joint Staff of Iranian Armed Forces is also following a plan about controlling cyberspace by "virtual border guards." The plan is believed to bring about a situation in which parallel organizations will attempt to control Iranians' access and use of the Internet.

There are a myriad of intelligence, military, police and other organs involved in internet control and censorship.

Attempts to control the messaging services started in January 2017 and finally resulted in a document called "Policies and Measures Regarding Social Messaging Services," a directive drawn by the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, a body whose ratifications are endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

The regime’s sensitivity towards messaging apps intensified at the beginning of 2018, when unrestricted information flow played a major role in mass protests across Iran.

The proposed plan in parliament to “organize” cyberspace, suggests establishing a Supervisory Committee similar to the Press Supervisory Board that controls the media - in other words limits press freedom. The cyberspace supervisory committee will have 13 members representing hardline organizations close to Khamenei such as the Judiciary, the state TV, the IRGC, the Islamic Propagation Organization, the police, civil defense organization, and the Qom Seminary."

This committee will have all the powers previously exercised by the Counter-Cyber Crimes Committee, the National Center for Cyberspace and the Prosecutor's Office and can order the Judiciary to punish those who violate its ratifications.

The committee will punish all those who have set up channels in banned applications such as Telegram. Others who want to set up channels in authorized messaging services need a license from the committee.

Before Telegram was filtered in February 2018, Iranians had established some 750,000 channels on the popular app. This is an indication of the impossible job the committee is facing.

Based on the bill, foreign messaging services may be authorized to operate in Iran after the completion of the National Information Network in March 2020 as Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi has promised.

Still the most controversial part of the plan is putting the Digital Border Guards in charge of cyberspace. This is a body to be established by the Armed Forces Joint Staff upon Khamenei's approval. The plan adds an additional layer of control over cyberspace.

Gholamreza Jalali, Iran's Civil Defence Chief, said in October that a Cyber Defense Headquarters is going to be set up in order to guard the country's virtual borders.

Khamenei has already approved the establishment of this headquarters in 2013. The headquarters' commander will be appointed by Khamenei once Jalali sets it up.

The bill suggested by the MPs requires that cell phone importers pre-install homegrown messaging applications on new phones by default, and further suggests linking the messengers to the country's banking system to make them more useful.

According to Jahromi, Iranian messaging applications can serve a maximum of 1.5 million users all together, while Telegram had some 40 million users in Iran of which a few millions left the application after it was banned, but others are still using it via VPNs; software that circumvent filtering.

Filtering was first introduced in Iran under reformist President Mohammad Khatami in the 2000s when blogging became popular. The biggest clamp-down on Internet-based activism was attempted under hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the disputed 2009 elections.

Pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani who won his election thanks to campaigning on Telegram failed to protect it against his conservative rivals. His government's attempt to curb Internet-based activism included charging twice as much for data usage on foreign messengers and applications compared to the rate for data consumption on homegrown messaging services and websites.

Iranians have widely used messaging applications such as Telegram to mobilize activists and organize protest demonstrations during the past year.