Iran is not simply a cookie-cutter example of an authoritarian regime moving toward more sophisticated Internet controls, says an important new report from the Open Net Initiative.
Two factors distinguish Iran as a unique case. With its invocation of a particular rhetoric to legitimize the filtering of websites and monitoring of netizens, the Iranian regime strives to present its actions as defensive manoeuvres against the onslaught of “Westernization” and to protect what it sees as an increasingly endangered culture. The second unique characteristic is the extent to which geopolitical factors play a key role in the government’s cyberspace policies. Iran has expressed particular concern over the West’s exercise of power in cyberspace, including “soft” tactics like propaganda and “hard” tactics like targeted malware attacks.
Western media heralded the Green Movement in Iran as a “Twitter revolution” fueled by information and communication technologies (ICTs) and social media tools. Activists and bloggers both inside and outside of the country used Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to broadcast a constant stream of news updates, photos, and video clips depicting the violence perpetrated by the regime and its security apparatus. Hacktivists and software engineers based in Iran and abroad kept Internet channels open through proxy portals and virtual private networks (VPNs), as the government scrambled to block them. ICTs thus played a pivotal role in helping Iranian social movements circumvent media blackouts to organize themselves and exchange information with the rest of the world.
If the post-election protests were indeed indicative of a supposed “Twitter revolution,” then one would expect the Iranian regime to respond by cracking down on ICTs and social media. After all, ever since Iran connected to the global network in 1993, authorities have maintained a volatile relationship with the Internet —becoming increasingly aggressive as the Internet’s social, political, and economic significance has grown inside the country. The government’s stance toward the Internet, however, has been conflicted: ICTs are viewed by the authorities as both a means toward sustained economic and political strength, and as tools of espionage in the hands of the opposition.
After 2009, the Iranian government took a number of steps toward tightening its grip on digital information flows. In essence, the Iranian regime’s turn toward overarching legal frameworks and information manipulation to complement filtration tools, which proved incapable of preventing the “Green Movement,” has accelerated since 2009. The Green Movement’s use of ICTs to organize demonstrations and communicate with the outside world exposed simple filtering mechanisms’ inability to stifle dissent. Instead, the government pursued comprehensive legal and regulatory changes aimed at centralizing control of the Internet and privately owned Internet service providers (ISPs) in the hands of the newly formed Supreme Council on Cyberspace, while simultaneously criminalizing access to banned websites. At the same time, the state has fought to promote its own national narrative in cyberspace by developing a “National Internet” and by at least tacitly encouraging the aggressive dissemination of its ideology through groups like the “Iran Cyber Army.”
While enacting considerable changes to Iran’s legal and regulatory environment, the government has also begun to pursue more complex techniques of control. Rather than simply censor content by denying Iranians access to certain websites or blacklisting specific keywords, the regime has increasingly sought to compete in cyberspace with the West and with domestic dissidents by waging an information war. Considerable effort has been directed toward “building new pro-government virtual spaces wherein the official culture could be propagated, made visible and, accordingly, legitimize state power.”
New initiatives have focused on creating a distinctly “Iranian” Internet and engendering a climate of self-censorship through a number of mechanisms. The newly developed “National Information Network” will erect state-defined boundaries to accessing content, while facilitating government surveillance of those who remain on the Internet. The regime has encouraged the actions of “Internet brigades,” groups of loosely affiliated hacktivists who use disinformation, propaganda, and harassment to “effect cognitive change” in society. The state has also embraced social-media tools at the highest levels. Ayatollah Khamenei now has accounts on Twitter and Instagram through which he posts updates for the Iranian population and diaspora.
Inspired by Chinese efforts to control the World Wide Web and create a de facto “domestic” Internet, the Iranian government declared its intention to create a national intranet in April 2011.
The National Information Network bears close resemblance to similar systems in North Korea and Cuba. The North Korean government has developed an isolated intranet consisting of approximately thirty sites called Kwangmyong.84 The government chooses the content, which is intended primarily for use in libraries, research institutes, and factories. Cuba, by contrast, offers a two-tiered system consisting of the Internet and an intranet.85 Regulatory measures and cost considerations prevent most citizens from accessing the World Wide Web. Instead, the majority of Cubans connect through RedCubana a walled-off intranet that features national e-mail, government informational websites, and some low-tech Wikipedia and Facebook clones.86 Cuba’s two-tiered system seems similar to what Iran seeks to achieve through the National Information Network: a relatively speedier domestic intranet serving as a practical alternative to a filtered, monitored, and considerably slower global Internet. Nationalism, Western threats of cyberwarfare, and the depiction of major companies such as Google and Facebook as agents of “American soft power” arguably bolster the authorities’ animosity to the Internet.
Iran’s Cyber Army
While the National Information Network represents an attempt to shape cyberspace according to Iranian values by creating an isolated “cyber-zone,” the government has also aggressively promoted those values on the World Wide Web. “Internet brigades”—both official and unofficial—have waged online campaigns that promote a national narrative and combat competing ideologies.
Hacking collectives have been active in Iran since the early 2000s. Groups like Ashiyaneh, Shabgard, and Simorgh infiltrated government websites for the sake of notoriety, competition, and occasionally profit.92 Beginning in the summer of 2009, politically motivated attacks and website defacements became increasingly common in Iran.93 One group in particular, the self-described Iranian Cyber Army (ICA), has waged a concentrated effort to promote the Iranian government’s political narrative online. ICA hackers have successfully defaced sites like Twitter, Voice of America, Baidu, and Radio Zamaneh, often emblazoning pages with their logo and leaving pro-government messages. Through such activities, the ICA seeks to induce fear, foment chaos, and hinder any web-based mobilization on the part of the opposition.
One can argue that the Iranian government has undergone a learning period since 2009. With the use of ICTs by both pro- and anti-regime forces in many of the contemporary “Arab Spring” revolutions, it is not difficult to imagine the Iranian government taking heed of recent regional developments to move towards a fortress-style model of cyberspace. With this analysis in mind, utopian models of cyberspace as an inevitable harbinger of greater openness must take into account the possibilities that states can adapt technology to counter democratic freedoms in much the same way that citizens adapt technology to fight for them.
This extract is taken from After the Green Movement: Internet Controls in Iran, 2009-2012, a report from the OpenNet Initiative, a collaborative partnership of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto; the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University; and the SecDev Group (Ottawa).
The regime has published a ‘blacklist’ of 60 organizations allegedly conducting soft war against the Islamic Republic, including the National Endowment for Democracy, National Democratic Institute, and International Republican Institute, along with human rights monitors, the Brookings Institution think tank and media outlets such as the BBC and Voice of America.