Boundaries of censorship in Iran

Following the release of the anti-Islam video Innocence of Muslims on Google-owned YouTube, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) blocked Google’s Gmail and search engine. A week later, the block was removed and access to these services resumed.

This was not the first time the government had blocked access. However, this instance was unique as the blocking was strongly criticized by those within the government. Alef, the website linked to Ahmad Tavakkoli, an influential conservative parliamentarian, responded by noting that “access to a safe email service is one of the fundamental individual rights, and no one should limit such a right.” Alef further criticized the filtering as an “irresponsible” action by the authorities that “forced many people, who do not want to use illegal circumvention tools, to use them in order to bypass the filtering and conduct their day-to-day work”.

A further comment from within the government argues that if these acts of filtering continue Iran will soon face a crisis in the digital media sector. Additionally, Hossein Entezami, a member of Iran’s Press Supervisory Board, stated that this incident demonstrated that those in charge of Internet censorship do not have a full understanding of the world of information and communication.

These criticisms from within the government are combined with startling statistics. Alef claims that 34 million Iranian Internet users use Google at least five times a day. Reports from Iran News Network confirms that, following the most recent filtering of Gmail, there was a significant increase in the usage of circumvention tools such as TOR and Ultrasurf, in addition to an increase in VPN and Socks sales.

Officials responded that Gmail and Google were filtered when access to the secure-protocol version of YouTube was blocked. According to Mohammad Reza Aghamiri, a member of the Commission to Determine Instances of Criminal Content, the block was due to a technical problem to separate these two services from YouTube. This Commission is the legal decision making body for Internet censorship in Iran. Aghamiri added that since there was “no way” that the IRI would make YouTube available in Iran, the government was left with no choice but to block other Google services alongside YouTube.

Reza Taghipour, the Minister of ICT, elaborated that his Ministry implemented the order to block YouTube from the Commission to Determine Instances of Criminal Content, but was not involved in the decision making process. According to him, the Ministry only implements decisions made by the Commission and do not make decisions on policy or legal matters related to Internet censorship itself.

In another account, Kamyar Saghafi, a member of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, noted that Gmail and Google search were blocked as a response to an overwhelming demand of many Iranians who protested against the movie Innocence of Muslims. Saghafi, while personally supportive of the blocking, clarified that the Supreme Council was not involved in this case of censorship.

Based on the statements of these officials, it seems that Iranian censors did not intentionally block Gmail and Google search. These services were accidentally impacted by the government filter on YouTube, making them casualties of that particular censor. Aghamiri confirmed that Gmail and Google services were restored after resolving technical problems to separate them from YouTube. He further clarified that the filtering of Gmail was not related to the launch of Iran’s National Information Network (NIN) and stated that “we [the government] do not intend to block Google and its services in Iran, whether we launch NIN or not”.

What is significant about this incident is that there seem to be limits to what online content the authorities can censor without facing public backlash and what they cannot. Given the popularity of Gmail and Google search and, perhaps, due to opposition from those within the IRI, Iranian officials had to publicly announce that they do not have plans to block access to these services.  Government officials’ responses to the blocking and the subsequent resumption of access give evidence that perhaps the IRI will remain receptive to popular demands and respect the boundaries of censorship.

ASL 19 originally wrote this post for the Citizen Lab website.