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.

What caused the unrest in Iran?

“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…

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