Instagram,Twitter and YouTube are blocked in Iran, but widely visited by Iranians using proxy servers. In recent weeks, local media reports that these companies are co-operating with Tehran to block or censor “immoral content”.
It’s clear that Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, the new communications minister, intends to make good on his promise to citizens that they will have easier access to the internet and app platforms. Iranian newspapers quote him as claiming that the government is in talks with social media companies to allow them to operate more freely within Iran if they adhere to the country’s strict “morality” rules. Last week he said, “[Twitter] has announced that it is prepared to negotiate to resolve problems,” and added that officials had also contacted YouTube representatives.
At 36, Mr. Azari Jahromi is the youngest person to ever serve as minister in Iran. In fact, he is the only minister who was born after the 1979 Islamic revolution. However, President Hassan Rouhani has been criticized by human rights groups over this appointment to his cabinet. The right groups do not trust the new minister’s intentions, as they say he was involved in surveillance efforts during the mass anti-regime protests of 2009. He denies this claim.
The Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC) has also initiated talks with managers at Instagram to block “immodest” pages from being viewed within the country, according to outgoing communications minister Mahmoud Vaezi. He said earlier this month, “We have contacted the managers of Instagram and they have responded that they are ready to from a moral perspective to filter pages that have criminal content.”
Most social media platforms remove violent and pornographic material under their terms of service. The newly proposed definition of “immoral content” worries “freedom of expression” organizations, who are concerned that it may be used to include messages, pictures, or video that would be of interest to the Iranian government, such as those which betray anti-regime sentiment or a user’s sexuality.
Iran’s Committee for the Promoting Virtue and Prohibiting Vice sees the Interest as a corrupting influence. Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Movahedi Kermani, who heads the Committee, said in a speech last December, “Bad hijab is a bad thing but cyberspace is a hundred times worse.” He added, “Cyberspace can uproot religion and Islam completely.”
The Supreme Council of Cyberspace reports to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supposedly to “shield Iranians from the internet’s blasphemous or sinful content,” but it also stifles freedom of speech and expression. Communications monitoring can lead to serious trouble for Iranian activists, or anyone who breaks the country’s conservative social rules.
Access to potentially censored versions of Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube has a precedent which was set in how encrypted messaging app Telegram’s relationship with the Iranian government has changed over the last two years, according to Kaveh Azarhoosh, an internet policy analyst and masters candidate at Oxford University’s Internet Institute. He stated, “Our hunch the whole time was that the Iranian government claimed they were talking to high-level people at Telegram, but they weren’t really, and it was all just propaganda.”
Contradictory statements from the Iranian authorities and the software company in 2015 caused fears for journalists, artists and activists, over interception and censorship among its 40 million Iranian users.
“In the end, Telegram ended up moving part of their physical server actually into Iran,” Mr. Azarhoosh said, and continued, “Telegram insists that the service is still fully encrypted, and they did it to to increase speeds, which may be the case but it shows there has been at least some level of interaction between Telegram and the government.”
More frightening is Mr. Azarhoosh’s statement, “What’s dangerous is if these companies are not transparent about their dealings with Iran. The Iranian government is one of the biggest abusers of limiting information in the world. These proposed measures would invade people’s privacy and right to expression and could be a matter of life and death for bloggers and other activists.”