Headlines on Iran’s Internet and ICT Development in 2014
The year in review as we prepare to discuss some of the latest developments at ICD 2015
President Rouhani continues to call for greater access to the Internet, in spite of strong opposition from conservatives in government. Rouhani granted broadband licenses and Minister of ICT Mahmoud Vaezi refused to comply with a judiciary order to block WhatsApp.
The Iranian government granted 3G and 4G licenses to Iran’s two biggest mobile operators, paving the way for improved high speed Internet connectivity. Smart phones are increasingly popular in Iran, with Android phones dominating the market.
Mobile app blocking has become the focus of information control debates among different government authorities, marking a shift away from web platforms as smartphones and mobile apps grow in popularity. Apps such as WhatsApp and Viber are used by many Iranians, with mobile group chat functions bringing new possibilities to online conversations.
“Smart filtering” tactics may be replacing the blanket blocking of popular platforms. Referring to content-specific censorship instead of blocking access to an entire website, smart filtering has so far been tested on Instagram, such as the blocking of the account @richkidsoftehran. Previously, authorities blocked access to entire websites such as Facebook and Twitter, but this has been an ineffective strategy. A 2014 study found that about 70% of young Iranians use circumvention tools to access the Internet. Anecdotal evidence of nuanced blocking or “stealthy censorship” has emerged recently, suggesting that new information controls may be disguised as technical errors instead of transparent censorship practices.
The de-legitimization of western-made technology products continues to be a focus of Iranian state media. In an episode of Masir, a television program produced by the state-owned Channel 1, an entire segment was devoted to “exposing the surveillance capabilities” of Viber, portraying it as a tool of Israeli and western actors. At the same time, government authorities are publicly voicing their support for Iranian-made apps, such as National Email (“Email Melli”) or the National Search Engine. This public support accompanies a significant increase in government investment on research and development for these “national technologies.”
Iran’s cyber attack capabilities have come under heavy scrutiny. FireEye released a report on Operation Saffron Rose and the increasing sophistication of hacker groups likely based in Iran. Cylance also published a controversial report on Operation Cleaver, attributing the hacking of critical infrastructure networks to groups inside Iran, sponsored by Iranian government. Independent researcher Collin Anderson and ASL19’s Ali Bangi have questioned the credibility of reports that suggest Iranian government authorities are behind the latter.
Collaboration between Iranians and the diaspora and global actors could also support the Iranian startup scene. The first iBridge conference on tech entrepreneurship in Iran was held in Berkeley, California, a gathering of tech enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and other influencers from the diaspora excited about the growth of the tech community in the country. However, it remains unclear to what extent the authorities will allow collaboration between those inside and outside Iran. In early 2014, the arrest of bloggers behind the Narenji blog had a chilling effect on international cooperation. The bloggers were allegedly arrested due to perceived links to BBC Persian. Narenji published reviews on consumer tech products.