Information Controls in Iran's 2017 Presidential Election
In Iran, elections and heightened Internet censorship often go hand in hand. A few weeks before the contested 2009 election, Facebook was blocked and the SMS network was shut down. When the next presidential election rolled around in 2013, the authorities disrupted circumvention tools, and network throttling slowed Internet speeds to a crawl. Such additional censorship measures implemented during politically sensitive periods are referred to as just-in-time information controls. And while they are on the rise in a number of countries, they were conspicuously absent in Iran’s 2017 presidential election, in which President Rouhani won a second term.
In this post, we’ll try to make sense of this precipitous decline in election related censorship, and speculate about what it means for the future of Internet policy in Iran.
Background: Iran’s media and Internet policy landscape
The 2017 election signals potentially significant changes to the ways candidates approach campaigns and how citizens access information necessary to make voting decisions. The increasing popularity of social media platforms has begun to challenge state television as the primary conduit through which campaigns reach voters. Candidates who had their campaign videos censored by Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), turned to Telegram and Instagram to share their content.
This growing shift from more traditional media to online platforms is in large part due to broader changes in Iran’s media landscape, including: faster Internet speeds, higher Internet and smartphone penetration rates, expansion of the 3G and 4G networks, and the continued accessibility of Instagram and Telegram. Telegram’s vibrant and active user-base has even created black markets for in-channel advertising, where campaigns could pay administrators to feature their content in popular channels.The relative lack of oversight on these widely used platforms enables a considerable amount of information to be shared daily, and potentially undermines some of the restrictions imposed by Iran’s conservative media laws.
Just-in-time information controls: 2009–2017
Alongside changes in Iran’s digital media landscape, there has been a shift in Iran’s approach to Internet policy. Beginning in 2009, Iranian authorities began to create a political and legislative infrastructure to deal with the administration of the Internet inside the country. Shortly after the 2009 presidential election, the Iranian parliament passed the sweeping Computer Crimes Law, which in turn established a body to make decisions about Internet censorship known as the Committee to Determine Instances of Criminal Content (CDICC).
When the protests following the 2009 election erupted, the authorities reacted with a number of just-in-time information control policies, including blocking platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which citizens used to disseminate news and information after the ejection of the foreign press.
By the 2013 presidential election, many of Iran’s information control policies and institutions were firmly established, and authorities implemented a proactive just-in-time information control policy. Beginning in the weeks leading up to the election, they adopted several measures such as blocking VPNs and circumvention tools, network throttling, and deep packet inspection.
After Rouhani took office in 2013, his administration started to push for changes in Iran’s Internet policy, advocating for greater Internet freedom and access. In 2014, Rouhani’s ICT Ministry successfully fought to keep WhatsApp accessible. In early 2016, the administration successfully lobbied to prevent Iran’s main filtering body (the CDICC) from blocking Telegram. Rouhani’s government has also resisted pressure from hardliners in Iran to block Telegram both during the parliamentary election in 2016 and the recent presidential election.
However, Rouhani’s record on Internet freedom has not been perfect. His ICT Minister recently boasted of blocking 7 million websites over the past few years. Moreover, the implementation of the National Information Network, as well as the incentives offered to encourage the use of services hosted in Iran (such as cheaper and faster Internet access), seem to be moving Iran towards the insular information control policies practiced in China. And it’s worth remembering that conservatives still hold considerable sway over Iran’s Internet policy, via their presence in powerful bodies such as the Supreme Council of Cyberspace.
Nevertheless, the 2016 parliamentary election marked a significant shift in Iran’s approach to just-in-time information controls. While blocking access to circumvention tools began months before the election, Internet and telecommunication services remained accessible throughout the campaign period and on Election Day. Ten days after the election, Rouhani specifically thanked the ICT Ministry, noting that “People were surprised to see that their Internet is working on election day […] Today’s circumstances are different from those of yesterday,” an implicit reference to the 2013 election and the changes to information controls inaugurated by his administration.
The 2017 Presidential Election
The 2017 presidential election illustrated a continuation of this trend towards fewer just-in-time information controls, marking the first election since 2009 where access to circumvention tools and the Internet was not disrupted at all. Rouhani took credit for this development, claiming that citizens only maintained access to social media during the campaign because his administration fought for Internet freedom. Whether Rouhani argued in favor of preserving access to social media during the election out of a sincere belief in freedom of expression or because it was politically expedient for him is largely immaterial; the result in either case is a less restricted Internet for Iranians during an important political event.
After achieving limited results attempting to block certain platforms, it appears as though Iranian authorities are moving away from directly denying access and towards longer term policies of directing the flow of information and seeking to push their narratives into the public sphere. A recent article by The Center for Human Rights in Iran provides great analysis on hardliners’ increased presence on social media and attempts to influence public opinion. One example the authors cites comes from a group close to Iran’s security establishment known as the Soft War Young Officers. In January, this group published an article in which they argue:
“Not even unconventional policies have turned in results. Now we cannot ignore opportunities on Twitter that could benefit our national security. Through Twitter, the citizens of the Islamic Republic must display their power on the international stage.”
In other words, rather than viewing foreign communication channels as threatening spaces to be shut down, many Iranian conservatives and hardliners are now looking at contesting these spaces via participation.
Coterminous with attempts to shape discourse on foreign platforms, there is also a concerted effort to encourage Iranians to adopt domestic alternatives through the development of the National Information Network. Taken together, these actions point to a strategy of information control that prioritizes nudges and persuasion over rudimentary content blocking.
Indeed, Iran’s current approach to Internet policy could be seen as an illustration of what Deibert and Rohozinski have called third generation information controls, which they describe as:
“Highly sophisticated and multidimensional, focus[ing] less on denying access to information and more on promoting a particular national narrative in cyberspace as part of a competition of ideas and ideologies.”
The development of the National Information Network is a perfect example of Iran’s information control policy moving past the initial stage of simply denying access. Instead, the authorities now appear to be aiming to replicate China’s model of information controls through both legislation and subsidies for creating national alternatives to popular international services, while at the same time offering economic incentives like cheaper and faster internet packages to access domestic services. Furthermore, by undermining net neutrality and subsidizing bandwidth for certain national services, the authorities are aiming at creating central points of control in private Internet companies to enforce national laws and shape discourse online.
However, attempts to centralize control over the Iranian internet have not gone unchallenged; increasing Internet and smartphone penetration in Iran are providing citizens with more accessible and affordable means of accessing information online. Coupled with the growing popularity of uncensored social media platforms, such as Telegram and Instagram, this increases the social costs of restricting the flow of information. The current administration has repeatedly cited the lack of alternatives to these platforms as a significant reason for keeping them open and accessible, while politicians and high ranking officials continue to join Twitter to defend their agenda and engage their constituents.
In the 2017 Presidential election, social media platforms provided an venue for two distinct national agendas vying to set the course for Iran’s future. Telegram and Instagram challenged traditional media and state television as the primary venues for public discussion. Campaigns and supporters spread rumours and fake news, while the same online spaces were used to fact check candidates’ promises and claims.
Whoever shapes Iran’s Internet policy over the next four years will have broad power to set the terms of public debate. The results of the election suggest that the national narrative conservatives aim to propagate have yet to broadly resonate with the Iranian public. However, as the affordances and constraints of online spaces become increasingly visible to the conservative elements of the government, they are likely to double down on efforts to restrict access to foreign platforms and push for an expansion of the national network. The extent to which they are successful will have a powerful impact on Internet freedom and political discourse in Iran.