The Iranian Government and Internet Repression

The Iranian Government and Internet Repression

By Jacob Uzman

The protests that swept across the Middle East and North Africa highlighted the role the Internet plays in mobilizing public support for popular movements. Many analysts contended that Internet access was a significant aid in ensuring that mass protests took place and in garnering public support. In the case of Iran, the perceived importance of social media websites has led commentators to dub the 2009 Green Revolution the “Twitter Revolution.” Unfortunately, much of this analysis ignores how the Iranian government has re-appropriated Internet technology to aid its repressive state apparatus. In fact, the regime has employed a wide range of strategies and tactics to counter opposition groups, utilizing the Internet in order to prevent a strong opposition movement from effectively challenging the regime. This paper seeks to provide a survey of the Internet suppression tactics at the regime’s disposal.

Internet domination is especially important for the Iranian regime because the Internet offers one of the strongest avenues for challengers to make their voices heard in the public sphere, and it has become “an information chokepoint that governments are seeking to control.”[1] The formation of public spaces within the digital sphere allows social actors to communicate their views and political efforts to one another, strengthening the efficacy of opposition activities. These exchanges also “strengthen the internal cohesion of political challengers who need to come up with common concepts and positions.”[2] Additionally, the cultivation of common values and solidarity amongst online activists “may pave the way for later political mobilization.”[3] This prospect creates a strong incentive for the Iranian regime to tightly control Iranian cyberspace.

Historically, Internet repression tactics can be divided into three generations of policies, with each generation changing as governments acquire a better understanding of how the web functions. The first-generation involves “widespread filtering”[4] and “direct censorship.”[5] The second-generation involves legal regulation of content, which codifies what content is acceptable in the Internet space. Third-generation policies utilize cyberspace to shape the public discourse and see it as a place to inject government propaganda. Both the first- and second-generation tactics differ sharply from third-generation strategies the initial of which “do not attempt to control Internet access.”[6]

Within the third-generation of policies, we find authoritarian states adopting “networked authoritarianism.”[7] In these states, online discussions about social issues take place, but the government tracks these conversations. Because these discussions take place, individuals may perceive greater freedoms, but only illusively so, for anything that they express can be held against them by the gaze of the watchful state. The state has the ultimate power to decide whether an individual should be jailed, and oftentimes, individuals perceived as a threat will be punished with little recourse.[8] The important aspect of this type of authoritarianism is that “political tactics…create selective social openings to create a semblance of transparency but in fact monitor and stifle dissent.”[9]

A further conceptual aid for understanding the different types of Internet strategies may be the distinction between proactive and reactive strategies. Proactive strategies seek to guide the public discourse in the digital sphere in order to maintain control over the flow of information. Reactive policies, on the other hand, respond to digital developments outside of government control. As activists develop new strategies, reactive policies will seek to curtail their implementation and limit the effectiveness of challenges to the regime’s authority[10]. Examples of this include “filtering content…monitoring users’ online behavior, or even prohibiting Internet usage entirely.”[11] Generally, we can characterize first- and second-generation cyber strategies as reactive, while a greater understanding of the digital space has led to more proactive tactics in the third-generation.

The Iranian regime’s response to civil society Internet use is multi-faceted and draws upon all three generations of Internet repression strategies. It exhibits at times the reactive censorship policies of the first- and second-generation, and at other times it adopts forms of networked authoritarianism inherent in third-generation policies. It is important to note that these distinctions are not rigid, and specific policies may be reactive whilst laying the foundation for future proactive actions. Good examples of this are the laws regarding Internet Service Providers (ISPs). In 2000 and 2001, the Iranian regime established a series of policies designed to bring ISPs closer to the government’s control. ISPs were required to end direct connections, and they had to receive licenses from the government in order to operate. They were also responsible for censoring websites that ran counter to the regime and Islam. Finally, the Supreme Council for the Cultural Revolution put ISPs under state control.[12] There are elements of both second- and third-generation tactics within these ISP policies. The censorship of content is a second-generation strategy that seeks to regulate what is acceptable in the digital space. Nevertheless, placing ISPs under state control and requiring licenses from the government are critical steps to utilizing the Internet to propagate regime ideology. While it is not clear that that was the original intent in 2000 and 2001, these policies embody the criteria of third-generation strategies of Internet repression.

That’s not to say that all policies are multifaceted. The Iranian government has used a whole host of strategies dedicated solely to censoring Internet content. In 2002, the government established the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorised Sites, which was responsible for inspecting blogs and deciding which sites should be blocked with Iran’s filtering resources.[13] In the past, Iran has relied on SmartFilter, a software developed by the US firm Secure Computing, for website filtering,[14] but the government has shifted to away from Western technologies to maintain “the integrity of the Iranian Internet”[15] and eliminate the risk of ‘backdoors’ into the Iranian system.[16] Members of the Iranian opposition have claimed that the government now uses Chinese filtering software,[17] and there may be evidence of this in the recent partnership between Huawei Technologies, a Chinese telecommunication company, and Iran.[18]  Just as importantly, however, the Iranian government has also sought to develop strong domestic filtering technologies,[19] such as “government-issued filtering boxes.”[20] This indicates that the Iranian government places a high priority on maintaining a robust filtering capacity.

Iran has also taken the more indirect tact of capping Internet connection speeds, which makes it harder for the public to download information, hindering the ability of activists to get their message out.[21] This tactic was particularly effective during the 2009 protests following the elections. By lowering bandwidth and connection speeds, Internet access was made functionally impossible for most activists. As Golkar notes, “[e]ven for those who used 512 Kb ADSL, it was not possible to send pictures and video.”[22] Given that there are a very small number of “international gateways that allow Internet traffic to enter or exit Iran,”[23] the low connection speeds compounded and magnified already entrenched problems with disseminating proof of regime repression to the wider international community.

Even if the connection speeds had been faster, though, activists would still have had to contend with the government’s extensive filtering operations. The government acquired technology that allowed it “to monitor any communications across a network, including voice calls, text messaging, instant messages, and Web traffic.”[24] Access to YouTube and Twitter were restricted, and in some cases it was impossible for activists to access these services. Mail services at public sites, such as Yahoo and Google, were also denied to activists for a time[25]. This filtering continues today as the Iranian government is seeking to implement the National Filtering Intelligence Bank (NFIB), which will “combine the current methods (for example filtering keywords) with evaluation of website content.”[26]

Furthermore, the government has created a vast operation targeting those activists who upload information to the Internet. Within the judiciary, the “Internet Office” was established to “identify and arrest weblog writers who criticise the religious or political system.”[27] These efforts are aided by the fact that all weblog writers are supposed to “register with the Ministry of Islamic Guidance.”[28] Complementing this office in the judiciary, Iran’s police agency, the Disciplinary Force of the Islamic Republic of Iran (NAJA), has an office focused on Internet activists.[29] The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has a branch dedicated to cyberspace, known as the Guard Cyber Defense Command (GCDC), and within the GCDC, the Center for Inspecting Organised Crimes (CIOC) polices cyberspace.[30] Because blogs are required to register all information about the users, such as IP address and connection times, the CIOC has been able to identify opposition activists who utilize the Internet to spread dissent against the regime.[31]

The identification of activists is a necessary part of the government’s broader intimidation campaign. The IRGC routinely sends email notifications reminding Internet users and activists that the government is monitoring them. Additionally, the government utilizes crowdsourcing to identify opposition members, publishing photos of opposition activists and offering incentives for citizens to identify and find these individuals.[32] These efforts seek to coerce activists and opposition groups into censoring themselves. By creating a climate of fear, the government seeks to deter anti-regime activism and depoliticize the digital sphere.[33]

This de-politicization campaign extends into Iranian social media where intelligence agents post links to unethical websites, containing anti-Islamic content, on opposition social networks. During the Green Movement, these networks would see a dramatic increase of anti-Islamic content in the days prior to demonstrations.[34] The aim of these efforts was likely to “cause disputes and disunion between different groups participating in the Green Movement,”[35] and the social media presence of these activists gave the government a new avenue to manipulate and obstruct opposition movements.

Furthermore, intelligence services see these social media sites as excellent places to gather information about opposition activists. As individuals use Twitter to tweet about the protests they were at and tag their friends in photos of the protests on Facebook, intelligence agents are able to build a more complete profile on those who they deem anti-regime activists. As mentioned above, the Iranian government has solicited the help of citizens in combatting these activists by encouraging them to “identify the faces of protesters in images posted online”[36] These public postings create a dangerous paper trail that implicates any individuals picked up by the Iranian security services and police.[37]

Ultimately, this public disclosure of information lends itself to violent crackdowns once these individuals have been identified. The GCDC has engaged in crackdowns against cyber activists. In one case, large numbers of activists were arrested as part of the “Mosellin” (misleaders) project.[38] Once arrested, individuals must “divulge their email password to intelligence agents,”[39] which allows the CIOC to read the correspondence of a suspect and identify whom their contacts are. Upon identification, intelligence services can reach out to an individual’s contacts to set them up and “entrap them.”[40] Evidence of criminal activity is not a requirement for arrest. Once opposition activists have been identified the CIOC can fabricate charges,[41] allowing individuals to be brought in for interrogation. Intelligence agents will also hijack the activist’s account, sending emails infected with Trojan horse viruses and key-loggers (programs that record every keystroke on a computer), in order to gain access to contacts’ computers.[42] These projects have likely expanded as the IRGC purchased a majority stake “in the Iranian Telecommunications Company, which handles all telephone lines, data communications and some of the biggest ISPs in Iran.”[43]

Intelligence services also have other covert ways of accessing the email accounts of activists. The CIOC has allegedly worked with companies such as Yahoo, which provide Internet services in order to acquire user information.[44] Internet cafes are monitored to identify activists through the use of key-logging and software by intelligence services. These tactics have been quite successful, resulting in many arrests of activists spreading anti-religious propaganda.[45]

When these methods fail, the Iranian government has resorted to cyber-warfare as a way of hindering the dissemination of opposition messages. These attacks are often designed to take down opposition websites by putting them offline, thereby crippling the ability of opposition groups to deliver their messages to viewers. In some instances, intelligence agents will hijack the website, redirecting visitors to pro-government websites.[46] This is a proactive spin on a reactive policy in that it seeks to turn opposition efforts to the government’s advantage.

Shifting into third-generation tactics, the Iranian government has also utilized false-flag operations (operations that are designed to look like they are executed by other organizations) in the digital space. Due to the government filters on the website content, there is strong demand for anti-filter software which is designed to circumvent government censors and gain access to unfiltered content. In light of this, intelligence services have taken to programming anti-filter software and distributing it to activists. This software, once installed on opposition computers, allows government agents to access activists’ information.[47] Similarly, the Iranian government has created its own anti-regime websites and blogs, allowing it to spread misinformation and “encourage dissidents to register with them by providing their email addresses and personal information.”[48] This was especially effective following the 2009 protests, as pro-regime activists uploaded fake content to Twitter and YouTube in order to mislead the press and opposition groups.[49]

Other proactive, third-generation policies include the digitization of the IRGC’s paramilitary organization, the Basijis. The Iranian government enacted a policy of creating Internet cafes on Basij bases and establishing 10,000 blogs run by Basij members. The Internet cafes are intended to ensure that every member of the Basij and their family have access to the Internet. Coupled with the 10,000 Basij blogs, these efforts are intended to create a strong force of regime proponents in the digital sphere, thereby spreading government propaganda and discouraging opposition activists.[50] With this strong army of cyber soldiers, the regime is able to “frame every question in the public domain – and even manufacture convenient “facts” to fit its claims.”[51] The strong emphasis on the cyber warriors was highlighted when the Iranian government made high-speed Internet connections available to Basij members.[52]

These Basij members receive a variety of training and take classes about how to wage a war in cyber space. These courses cover issues regarding “blogging, social networking sites, psychological operations, online spying, Basij cyber centres, mobile phones and their capabilities, and computer games.”[53] Courses on writing blog content are also offered to women and students.[54] This training and coursework creates a powerful voice in the digital sphere dedicated to spreading regime propaganda.

These efforts and policies demonstrate how the Iranian regime has adapted to the digital sphere, employing a variety of reactive and proactive strategies that seek to control cyberspace. Reactive first- and second-generation strategies are designed to prevent major opposition groups from organizing effectively, while proactive third-generation policies have established forms of networked authoritarianism that seek to shape the digital sphere in ways that are advantageous to the regime. This extensive effort to wrest control of the Internet from civil society groups suggests that the relationship between the Internet and opposition groups is more complex and dynamic than has been portrayed in most analysis up until now.

Notes


[1] Simon, Joel. 2010. “Repression Goes Digital.” Press-Freedom Watch. March/April. 12-14.  12.

[2] Michaelsen, Marcus. 2011. “Linking Up for Change: The Internet and Social Movements in Iran.” Social Dynamics 2.0; researching change in times of media convergence; case studies from the Middle East and Asia. 105-126. 107.

[3] Michaelsen. 108.

[4] Pearce, Katy E. and Sarah Kendzior. 2012. “Networked Authoritarianism and Social Media in Azerbaijan.” Journal of Communication. 62:283-298. 287.

[5] Pearce and Kendzior, 287.

[6] Pearce and Kendzior, 287.

[7] MacKinnon, Rebecca. 2010. “Networked Authoritarianism in China and Beyond: Implications for global Internet freedom.” Paper presented at Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes. October 11-12. 3.

[8] MacKinnon, 3-4.

[9] Pearce and Kendzior, 287.

[10] Golkar, Saeid. 2011. “Liberation or Suppression Technologies? The Internet, the Green Movement and the Regime in Iran.” International Journal of Emerging Technologies and Society. 9(1):50-70. 53.

[11] Golkar, 53.

[12] Golkar, 58.

[13] Golkar, 58.

[14] OpenNet Initiative, Internet Filtering in Iran in 2004-2005: A Country Study (2005). 3.

[15] OpenNet Initiative, Internet Filtering in Iran. (2009). 4.

[16] OpenNetInitiative (2009), 4.

[17] Dehghan, Saeed Kamali. “Iran Tightens Online Censorship to Counter US ‘Shadow Internet.’ The Guardian. July 13, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/13/iran-tightens-online-censorship

[18] Stecklow, Steve, Farnaz Fassihi, and Loretta Chao. “Chinese Tech Giant Aids Iran.” The Wall Street Journal. October 27, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204644504576651503577823210.html

[19] OpenNet Initiative (2009), 4.

[20] Freedom House, Freedom on the Net 2012 – Iran, 25 September 2012, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/5062e8a2c.html

[21] Golkar, 58.

[22] Golkar, 60.

[23] Simon, Joel. 2010. “Repression Goes Digital.” Press-Freedom Watch. March/April. 12-14.  14

[24] Simon, 12.

[25] Golkar, 60.

[26] Golkar, 60.

[27] Golkar, 58.

[28] Golkar, 58-59.

[29] Golkar, 58.

[30] Golkar, 59

[31] Golkar, 60.

[32] Golkar, 61-62.

[33] Golkar, 61-62.

[34] Golkar, 62.

[35] Golkar, 62.

[36] Youmans, William Lafi and Jillian C. York. 2012. “Social Media and the Activist Toolkit: User Agreements, Corporate Interests, and the Information Infrastructure of Modern Social Movements.” Journal of Communication. 62: 315-329. 323.

[37] Morozov, Evgeny. 2009. “Iran: The Downside to the “Twitter Revolution.”” Dissent. Fall. 10-14. 12.

[38] Golkar, 59

[39] Golkar, 60.

[40] Golkar, 60.

[41] Golkar, 60.

[42] Golkar, 60.

[43] Golkar, 59

[44] Golkar, 61.

[45] Golkar, 61.

[46] Golkar, 61.

[47] Golkar, 61

[48] Golkar, 61.

[49] Kelly, Sanja and Sarah Cook. 2011. “New Technologies, Innovative Repression: Growing Threats to Internet Freedom.” Freedom House. 1-11. 8

[50] Golkar, 62.

[51] Abbas, Milani. 2010. “Iran’s Hidden Cyberjihad.” Foreign Policy. Jul/Aug. 110-111. 110.

[52] Golkar, 63.

[53] Golkar, 63.

[54] Golkar, 63.