Iran’s twelfth presidential elections are on May 19, and one policy platform that has come to define the state of freedoms is again surfacing as an important national discussion: the internet.
While the 2015 nuclear deal will likely be the deciding factor for the Iranian vote, internet policy and censorship is often the barometer for gauging how progressive and appealing a politician is to Iran’s 80 million population, dominated by tech-savvy youth under 35.
The 2009 presidential elections became the first instance where the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration government made serious efforts to take control of the Internet. Weeks before voting, the government had seen the momentum of the reformist, or Green Movement, presidential candidates on social media, and censored Facebook and Twitter to curtail mobilization. The movement was only strengthened with Ahmadinejad’s reelection, which many called fraudulent.
Iranian authorities were still trying to curb political mobilization by throttling internet speeds.
The government responded by temporarily cutting the country off from the internet. Then they started to censor and control the internet through Cyber Crimes Laws—federal regulations approved shortly after the 2009 protests that criminalizes behaviors the government deems inappropriate online. The Supreme Council of Cyberspace created in 2012 was also a push to centralize Internet policy under the hardline Supreme Leader.
In the next election, in 2013, presidential candidates recognized the young constituents’ needs and campaigned on platforms of improved access and innovation online. But Iranian authorities were still trying to curb political mobilization by throttling internet speeds to the point of unusability in the days leading up to the election.
The victory of the moderate Hassan Rouhani however, was a welcome relief to many frustrated by continuous hurdles towards access online. At a campaign rally a week before the 14 June 2013 Presidential elections, Rouhani told his supporters: “We are living in a world in which limiting information is impossible. Youth are faced with bombardment of information and we must prepare to handle it.”
His platform was centered on better access, and his main promise was to increase internet speeds to improve the country’s economic situation. However, he never made any concrete promises to lessen the censorship regime that was responsible for blocking Iranians from Twitter and Facebook.
Read More: Why Iran Is Blocking Instagram
Fulfilling one of his campaign promises, the Rouhani administration published a Charter of Citizen Rights in December 2016. While it stands unclear what legal basis this document will hold, there are a few articles in the document that guarantee Iranian rights online:
Article 26: The Government shall, according to the law, guarantee freedom of speech and expression, especially in the mass media, cyber space, including in newspapers, magazines, books, cinemas, radio and television, social networks and the likes.
Article 33: Citizens have the right to freely and without discrimination enjoy access to and communicate and obtain information and knowledge from cyberspace.
Article 35 Citizens have the right to enjoy cyber security, security of communication technologies and informatics, and protection of their personal data and privacy.
While a welcome sentiment, the charter’s guarantees have not been reflected in the arrests, censorship, and other forms of online repression which have occurred throughout the Rouhani administration. Neither the conservative Judiciary or Revolutionary Guards have shown signs of respecting these rights in their decision-making, recently choosing to execute Sina Dehghan for his “immoral” social media posts, or arrest administrators of Telegram, a messaging app.
There has also been a very thin line between innovation and control in this administration’s internet policy. With promises to enliven the local tech industry, policies have aimed to place more internet services and servers inside of Iran, away from foreign competition that has stoked fears of surveillance.
The government has given ultimatums to foreign messaging services such as Telegram to relocate their servers inside of Iran, and incentives to local developers to create platforms that would replace foreign applications. These efforts spark concern given the country’s own privacy violations. Notable cases of the government’s use of user data for repression include the arrests of reformist journalist Isa Saharkhiz, when the court used information from his text messages through Nokia-Siemens technology, and the arrest of Iranian-American Nostrallah Khosravi-Roodsari, who was arrested based on Iran’s mass surveillance of SMS data.
Despite this, many Iranians credit the Rouhani administration with keeping platforms such as Telegram, Instagram and WhatsApp unfiltered. Rouhani himself was heard saying during the first Presidential debate of 28 April to his opponents: “If it wasn’t for my government, the Internet would be so limited, even my opponents could not use it for campaigning.”
But problems persist as this election heats up. The Rouhani administration was unable to prevent the hardline judiciary from blocking Telegram’s encrypted voice calls on April on grounds of national security close to an election, with similar decisions being taken for Instagram’s live feature. And the alternative to Rouhani is the conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who’s been ridiculed for his lack of understanding of technology, as well has his intention to intensify controls online.
Whichever direction this election takes, it is likely that programs to control and censor the internet will continue in the Islamic Republic of Iran. As all elections since 2009, however, Iran’s political dissenters will continue to fight for internet freedom.
Mahsa Alimardani is a writer and activist for Article 19. She wrote the report “Online Freedoms in Iran Ahead of the 2017 Presidential Elections.”