Iranian authorities including officials from the Ministry of Culture touted this announcement as evidence of Iran’s technical prowess, something that has also made headlines in recent months as a result of the rising threat of Iranian cyber-attacks. Some officials have also insisted that plans are in the works to develop a self-contained national intranet that would only allow Iranian citizens to access data that has been approved by the regime. But these plans have supposedly been in the works for years without new developments. And many believe that they are impractical and beyond Iran’s actual technical ability.
While the Iranian regime has indeed become more technologically sophisticated, this development has seemingly failed to outpace the tech-savvy of ordinary Iranians, who are routinely able to circumvent the regime’s blockage of entire websites such as Facebook and Twitter. This is not to say that Iran’s internet censorship is never effective, but it faces nearly constant challenges both from inside and outside the country.
External challenges were highlighted on Thursday when it was reported that recent security updates by the image-sharing application Instagram had been allowing formerly banned images to penetrate Iranian filtering. Motherboard reported that Instagram’s newfound encryption had effectively rendered “smart censorship” obsolete in one fell swoop.
This clearly points to the potential that already exists for tech companies, Iranian citizens, and others to counteract the regime’s censorship and misuse of resources that could be used for political organizing and activism.
Last summer a homosexual dating app came under fire for having security vulnerabilities that might have made it possible for Iranian security forces to pinpoint the location of each user, thus opening them up to arrest and prosecution in a country where homosexuality can be punished with the death penalty.
But if such vulnerabilities can be corrected as effectively as was the vulnerability in Instagram, the same types of apps can provide citizens with an opportunity to communicate with those who share criminalized identities and to experience some measure of the freedom that is otherwise denied to them.
“It’s now an ‘all or nothing’ situation for Iran,” Motherboard said of the newfound challenge to Instagram censorship. “Either the censors block the entire Instagram domain and app, like they do with Twitter or Facebook, or they’ll have to resort to more sophisticated and costly techniques such as doing man-in-the-middle attacks using fake or bogus digital certificates.”
The regime’s former praise for “smart censorship” may suggest that it was worried about the potential for greater citizen unrest if other popular sites joined Twitter and Facebook on the ban list. What’s more, compared to smart filtering such wholesale bans would do more to undermine the image of moderation that the administration of President Hassan Rouhani has been attempting to project. Rouhani sailed to victory in 2013 amidst promises of, amongst other things, less censorship and a freer internet. To date, few if any of these promises have been acted upon.
Consequently the claim of moderation faces more challenges than just the practical problems associated with technical barriers to censorship. The lack of domestic reform has been raised repeatedly by domestic and foreign activists, often contrasting the current situation of censorship and repression with the claims of Rouhani administration officials.
This contrast has been in focus for many activists since last week when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gave an interview to Charlie Rose in the United States. In that appearance, Zarif responded to questions about imprisoned Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian by denying that political imprisonment and the censorship of journalists are problems in Iran.
The Committee to Protect Journalists regularly finds that Iran is one of the worst jailers of journalists in the world. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported on Tuesday that this has led to a steady stream of “astonished reactions” to Zarif’s denial from Iranian journalists and others who are familiar with the denials of free speech in the country.
“I spent weeks under duress inside Ward 209 of Evin Prison, [where I was pressured] to take responsibility for the news articles and reports I had written,” said Siamak Ghaderi, a journalist who published articles critical of the regime when working at the Islamic Republic of Iran News Agency around the time of the 2009 Green movement. “What was all this pressure and the sentence I received for, then? Had I climbed up someone’s wall? Had I embezzled government funds? It was for my journalism profession and my beliefs. Why I did I go to prison for four years, Mr. Zarif?”
Testimony such as this makes it clear that repression is a fact of life in the Islamic Republic. But it has not stopped citizens from circumventing restrictions on media and the internet. And it has not stopped journalists from speaking out. Neither has this repression halted protests, as was made clear once again on Thursday with the fulfillment of week-long promises of massive teacher protests across Iran, in response to a diminishing standard of living and the imprisonment of a number of labor organizers.
A CNN iReport on Thursday claimed that these protests had flared up in some 35 cities. The National Council of Resistance of Iran estimated that 6,000 teachers had assembled outside of the parliament building in Tehran carrying placards that called attention to the poverty-level pay of Iranian teachers, criticizing institutionalized discrimination, and calling for the release of teacher Rasoul Bodaghi from his five-year sentence on charges of “propaganda” and “collusion.”
In a statement, NCRI President Maryam Rajavi called upon the youth of Iran to join the protests in support of their teachers. And a separate report at the organization’s website pointed out that some 10 fellow inmates of Rasoul Bodaghi had been participating in a hunger strike to call attention to his case and that of other imprisoned labor organizers. As of Thursday, this hunger strike had surpassed its third day.