Dubious Twitter Claim Suggests Iran Is Struggling to Control Internet Communications

The Associated Press reports that on Tuesday, Iranian Communications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi announced that Twitter was prepared to begin talks with the Iranian government about how to go about having blocks on the microblogging site lifted within the Islamic Republic. Jahromi was quoted as saying that Twitter had “officially announced readiness to talk with Iran for resolving the problems.” However, no such official statement appeared in global media at the time, and the AP reported that Twitter had not immediately responded to requests for comment.

The internationally popular social media platforms Twitter and Facebook have both been officially blocked in the country since they were used as organizational tools in the midst of protests against the disputed presidential elections in 2009. But many Iranians use virtual proxy networks and other technical workarounds to access them anyway. This raises some questions regarding what incentives Twitter might have to work with the Iranian government for the sake of ending a block that is not effectively enforced.

The official ban is not even enforced among Iranian officials, many of whom are active on Twitter or at least maintain infrequently used accounts. Last week, IranWire published an extensive list of some of the most influential Iranian figures who utilize the platform, and it includes various categories including hardline politicians, independent journalists, and exiled activists who are able to reach a domestic Iranian audience thanks to the frequent violations of the ban.

The IranWire report begins by saying, “Twitter is banned in Iran but anybody who is anybody uses it.” Though preceding Jahromi’s announcement about Twitter’s supposed intentions to discuss the site’s future in Iran, the report preemptively cast doubt upon the notion that the ban would be lifted. Specifically, it quoted multiple hardline officials as saying that the ban is here to stay, and it also indicated that the judiciary had gone as far as to suggest that it would continue to enforce the ban even if the Supreme Council of Cyberspace decided that it should be lifted.

That council, which is headed by the supposedly moderate President Hassan Rouhani and the Communications Ministry but also overseen by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has reportedly directed a working group to devise a plan for filtering the platform instead of blocking it outright. The internet as a whole is heavily filtered in Iran to exclude content considered morally objectionable or threatening to national security, and officials have variously announced plans to essentially wall off the global internet and create a “halalnet” that consists only of regime-approved content.

Such plans are generally understood to be well beyond the country’s technical capabilities, but public statements have suggested that restrictions are becoming more extensive and effective. Of course, such statements are contradicted by the widespread popularity of Twitter and other platforms, including the instant messaging app Telegram. Although dozens of administrators of Telegram user groups were jailed in the run up to May’s national elections, the regime has apparently struggled to block content or to monitor the comparatively anonymous app.

In a possible indication of frustration over this situation, Tehran has claimed that Telegram conceded to Iranian demands that local communications be housed on local servers. Telegram has vigorously denied these claims, however, and no evidence has been presented to contradict those denials. This makes it quite likely that the claims are part of a broader attempt by the Iranian regime to make internet communications within its borders seem more vulnerable than they are. As such, Jahromi’s announcement regarding Twitter may be another example of the same.

As Iran Human Rights Monitor has pointed out, that announcement was preceded, on August 16, by a letter written to the Iranian parliament by the head of the Ministry of Intelligence. In it, Mahmoud Alawi promised to intensify the crackdown on internet communications. But if the Twitter announcement is indeed false, it may be an indication that the Communications Ministry is struggling to determine how to do this effectively.

To be sure, free expression on the internet does indeed expose Iranian citizens to the possibility of punishment, which can be quite severe in many cases. The Intelligence Ministry and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps actively monitor public online commentary and have made numerous arrests in the past. But this has not stopped social media platforms from being used to express dissent or organize protests, of which there have been hundreds throughout the country over the past year.

In an interview with IranWire, the expatriate Iranian activist Masih Alinejad explained that social media has had a profound impact on the nature and extent of public dissent in the Islamic Republic:

“In the past, if a member of a family was a political prisoner, or if a family member had been executed, the family would move a few villages away to isolate themselves. They would hide in the closet so that they would not have to talk about it because society was not understanding. But now we can see that the citizens are gaining power through social networks. They now feel that if they have a political prisoner in the family or if a family member has been sentenced to death, they have not been dishonored and must not feel shame. Instead, they point the finger back at the government.”

It is not clear that the Iranian regime has a clear strategy for countering this trend, at least within cyberspace itself. However, one could easily conclude that the challenges posed by social media are part of the reason for the crackdown by security forces that has reportedly been ongoing since before the conclusion of nuclear negotiations in 2015. In this sense, direct attacks on known civil and political activists may be seen as a way of discouraging online communications, especially when arrests and other enforcement measures can be linked directly to online activities.

The Center for Human Rights in Iran provided an example on Monday when it reported that the reformist journalist Sasan Aghaei had been arrested without a warrant on August 12 and detained in Evin Prison on suspicion of collaborating with Amad News, one of the most popular Iranian channels on Telegram. The report notes that the previous Communications Minister, Mahmoud Vaezi, attempted to block the channel but was stymied by Telegram’s refusal to cooperate.

CHRI also reports that Aghaei’s family has had no contact with him in the two weeks since his arrest – a fact that apparently speaks to the regime’s intention to silence him not only online, but completely.

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