Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The Ministries of Culture and of Information and Communications Technology are the main regulatory bodies for content and internet systems and maintain monopoly control over internet traffic flowing in and out of the country. The Office of the Supreme Leader also includes the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, charged with regulating content and systems. The government collected personally identifiable information in connection with citizens’ peaceful expression of political, religious, or ideological opinion or beliefs.
The law makes it illegal to distribute circumvention tools and virtual private networks, and Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi was quoted in the press stating that using circumvention tools is illegal.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance must approve all internet service providers. The government also requires all owners of websites and blogs in the country to register with the agencies that comprise the Commission to Determine the Instances of Criminal Content (also referred to as the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Websites or Committee in Charge of Determining Offensive Content), the governmental organization that determines censoring criteria. These agencies include the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, the Ministry of Intelligence, and the Tehran Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Ministry of Information and Communications Technology regulations prohibit households and cybercafes from having high-speed internet access.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the global internet, including fully blocking access for almost one week during nationwide protests in November 2019. There were reports the government again slowed internet access on December 25, approximately 40 days after the protests began, which media and NGO reports noted would correspond to memorial ceremonies for the victims. The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology denied reports of an internet shutdown in December.
Authorities blocked access to independent news sites and a number of social media and communication platforms deemed critical of the state, and continued to monitor private online communications and censor online content. Individuals and groups practiced self-censorship online.
According to Freedom House, authorities employed a centralized filtering system that can effectively block a website within a few hours across the entire network. Private internet service providers (ISPs) were forced to either use the bandwidth provided by the government or route traffic containing site-visit requests through government-issued filtering boxes developed by software companies within the country.
The government continued to implement the National Information Network (NIN, also known as SHOMA). As described by Freedom House, SHOMA enabled the government to reduce foreign internet connection speeds during politically sensitive periods, disconnect the network from global internet content, and disrupt circumvention tools. According to Freedom House, a number of domestically hosted websites such as national online banking services, domestic messaging apps, and hospital networks were able to remain online using the NIN infrastructure while global traffic was disconnected during the November 2019 protests.
Authorities restricted access to tens of thousands of websites, particularly those of international news and information services, the political opposition, ethnic and religious minority groups, and human rights organizations. They continued to block online messaging tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, although the government operated Twitter accounts under the names of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and other government-associated officials and entities, including after shutting down most of the country’s internet access during the November demonstrations. According to Freedom House, websites are blocked if they contradict state doctrine regarding Islam, as well as government narratives on domestic or international politics. News stories that cover friction among political institutions are also frequently censored.
In October 2019 a letter signed by Javad Javidnia, the former deputy prosecutor general responsible for cyberspace, and secretary to the Committee to Determine Instances of Criminal Content (CDICC), was sent to ISPs asking them to block the official Android app store and the Google Play store “as soon as possible.” The letter stated that the CDICC made the decision “in accordance with Article 749 of the Islamic Penal Code relating to computer crimes.” Article 749 requires all ISPs to filter any content determined by the CDICC as criminal content. Resistance in complying with this article results in the termination of the ISP or in some cases a financial penalty.
Government organizations, including the Basij Cyber Council, the Cyber Police, and the Cyber Army, which observers presumed to be controlled by the IRGC, monitored, identified, and countered alleged cyberthreats to national security. These organizations especially targeted citizens’ activities on officially banned social networking websites such as Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, and they reportedly harassed persons who criticized the government or raised sensitive social problems.
The popular messaging app Telegram remained blocked during the year, although it continued to be accessed using circumvention tools.
According to Freedom House, significant internet disruptions were observed as protests broke out in the aftermath of the military’s January 8 accidental shooting down of airliner Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752. Access to the messaging app WhatsApp was also disrupted during this time.
In February extensive network disruptions impacted the country, which the Ministry of Information claimed to be due to a DDoS attack originating from outside the country, although they did not provide information to verify this claim.
In early March as the country was battling outbreaks of COVID-19, reports confirmed that access to Persian Wikipedia had been blocked using the same method used for blocking Telegram and Facebook, although officials did not comment on the incident.
In July further network disruptions were reported following protests against the government’s foreign policy and the continuing economic crisis in Khuzestan Province. The same month, network disruptions were reported for three hours as online users used hashtags on social media to speak out against death sentences handed down to three men who participated in the 2019 protests.
In September the Tehran Province chief justice issued a directive establishing specialized court branches to handle cases against cyberspace businesses, according to a November report by Iran-based technology news website Peyvast. The directive instructed courts to prosecute the users of “user-centric software” for illegal content, rather than the owners of the technology platforms on which the content was published.
Contrary to the directive, in late October, Judge Mohammad Moghisseh of Tehran Revolutionary Court Branch 28 sentenced Aparat CEO Mohammad Javad Shakouri-Moghadam to a total of 12 years in prison for “encouraging corruption,” “publishing vulgar content,” and “propaganda against the regime,” for a 2019 video posted on the platform in which a reporter asked children in Tehran if they knew how they were born. Shakouri-Moghadam appealed the ruling and was freed on bail.
Bloggers, social media users, and online journalists continued to be arrested. In April popular Instagram couple Ahmad Moin-Shirazi, a former world kickboxing champion, and his wife Shabnam Shahrokhi reported they were sentenced in absentia for charges of “propaganda against the regime” and “spreading obscene and vulgar content” related to posts on social media.
In May police confirmed the arrest of parkour athlete Alireza Japalaghy and an unnamed woman for “advocating vice,” after Japalaghy posted photos of them embracing that went viral on social media. Japalaghy was later released and reportedly fled the country. The woman’s whereabouts were unknown.
The government uses an extensive digital propaganda apparatus, backing numerous initiatives to promote blogging among its supporters. Following the January death of IRGC-Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, a number of Twitter accounts claiming to be located in Iran began tweeting using hashtags such as #hardrevenge and images of Soleimani.