Only a few days after protests started in Iran, the right to access the internet was restricted and social platforms were filtered. The government of Iran used the unrest as an excuse and started moving towards the establishment of the National Internet.
The limited access to the internet started during the first week of the protests against the suspicious death of Mahsa Amini at the Hijab police headquarters, and continues to this day. But in recent weeks, the disruption of access to the global internet has been worse than ever. One by one, all the VPNs are out of reach, access to messengers and social networks has become more difficult, and a wave of filtering is sweeping foreign websites.
On the December 4, a news article was published in the media quoting Ahmad Vahidi, the Minister of Interior of the 13th government, citing a “complete filtering of cyberspace” and it was denied a few hours later. On December 18, Mohsen Taeb, the former head of the IRGC Intelligence Organization, said, “[t]here will come a day on the platforms where we will determine whose photo will be published and who will not.” In the last 3 months, the Ministry of Communications of the Ebrahim Raisi government has made contradictory statements on this matter.
Since the beginning of the government disruption of the internet, the country’s businesses have been damaged daily at least 500 million Rial and at most 5000 million Rial. More than 41% of companies have lost 25-50% of their income during this period and about 47% have had a more than 50% decrease in sales. A review of the data from the Research Deputy of the Tax Affairs Organization of Iran shows that the internet outage has caused 30000 billion Rial of damage per day. That means the cost of 3 months of internet outage in Iran is equal to 43% of one year of the country’s oil revenue ($25 billion).
According to the IODA Internet Observatory, the internet in the provinces of Kurdistan, Alborz, Tehran, Semnan, Lorestan and Bushehr has been severely disturbed for the past few days. Mobile and home internet in Kurdistan province has been severely disrupted since around 10:00 p.m. on Saturday, December 6, and is continuing as of the writing of this report. The access of unique IPs to the internet in Kurdistan province has been close to a complete shutdown at times.
Restriction of the internet in Iran is not limited to these protests. Facebook and Twitter were also filtered in Iran during the protests against the presidential elections of 2009. Telegram was also filtered during the protests of 2019. But the popularity of these applications has not decreased due to the general use of VPNs. For years, the Iranian authorities have considered these networks as a threat and are waiting for an opportunity to filter them.
Iranian internet users have been listed as underage by Google web search engines since July this year, two months before the protests began, and their search results have been limited and filtered. After a long period of disruption in the network and a decrease in the quality of the internet, now 85 million Iranians are considered children.
In other words, if internet users in Iran want to use Google, they will face filtered and limited results. This is because Safe Search is permanent on the network of these operators and cannot be canceled.
Follow-ups show that this issue was not implemented by the operators but by the Ministry of Communications. The restrictions have opened a new chapter in the protection of 85 million Iranians after the recent disturbances.
Safe Search in other countries is generally used for people under 18 as well as schools and universities. This even affects the process of scientific and research searches. If a person is looking for research materials, accurate information may not be displayed to him and he may see results that are not very useful.
This action is a violation of civil rights, because according to the charter of citizens’ rights that was compiled and announced by the previous government, access to the internet and information and communication is the right of citizens.
According to the principles of international conventions, free access to communication and information is a citizen’s right. But with such restrictions enabled for everyone, people have access to incomplete or poor information when searching. This is considered a violation of human rights from the international perspective and can have consequences.
For example, on an international legal level, according to the license agreements of these search engines, the safe search function should be used only for users under 18 years of age or schools. According to this clause and the generalization of this capability to the entire Iranian people, the license has been violated. The owner of the platform can file a lawsuit against the violator of this license in foreign courts. For example, in Europe, the Ministry of Communications can be sued in the Human Rights Court.
Iran is likely to face sanctions for these restrictions. If the platforms can prove that the Safe Search functionality in Iran has been violated and the flow of information has been restricted, they can order the complete deactivation of Safe Search for Iran. In fact, a service that could have been used is completely out of reach of all families due to abuse.
The country’s cyber governance has been compromised by such an action It is possible that the international court will issue a verdict that will hit Iran’s cyber governance the most. Also, financial fines are probable for the infrastructure communication company.
Sharareh Abdolhoseinzadeh is a PhD in Political Sociology and a political researcher in Tehran.
Suggested citation: Sharareh Abdolhoseinzadeh, International Consequences of Internet Restrictions in Iran, JURIST – Professional Commentary, December 24, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/12/Sharareh-Abdolhoseinzadeh-Iran-internet-censorship/.
This article was prepared for publication by Rebekah Yeager-Malkin, Co-Managing Commentary Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to she/her/hers at firstname.lastname@example.org