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Online Censorship in Islamic Iran

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The Islamic state restrictions against free flow of information out of, into, and within Iran have shifted over the past two decades—from super tight during the fundamentalist rulers, to minor loosening under the reformists. However, media and social networks have remained censored, despite false promises by President Hassan Rouhani’s current regime. And it is entering a much more dangerous, sinister phase.

“If I become president, I will provide a safe and secure situation,” Rouhani declared, similar to other Khomeinist officials before him. Like the regime’s main propagandist, Mohammad Javad Zarif, he is not to be trusted.

Iran is ranked 170th out of 180 nations surveyed worldwide in terms of press freedom as of 2019.

Following Iran’s nationwide protests in late December 2017, the Khomeinist regime banned the popular Telegram messaging application. It had reportedly become used by at least 40 million Iranians, on at least 600,0000 channels.

Iranians are consistently barred from openly accessing the internet. Access is denied to at least several major social media platforms on the Web. The regime’s censorship keeps Iranian people isolated from worldwide reach into homes and businesses of global villagers, who increasingly enjoy fast broadband access in the 21st century.

The Islamic authorities have particularly blocked access to the free flow of news information on the worldwide social media networks. As a result, the Iranian citizens’ basic digital rights are being violated by the regime in our modern, cyberspace, technological era, as much as their basic human and civil rights have been tyrannized in the past, ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution began its crackdown on freedom.

But actions taken by the Islamic regime in this technological space now show an even darker side than mere censorship. Recently, the online Google Play Store removed unsafe and destructive messenger apps developed by the regime— “Hotgram and Talagram (Golden Telegram)”—from Android-based cell phones, for security purposes, because the apps fail to protect users’ data. That is a danger about which the Telegram app’s CEO, Pavel Durov, had already warned. The theocrats of Iran have been spying on people through these now banned apps.

Iran's ultra-low press freedom ranking has not improved during the Rouhani period, compared to his predecessors. According to a 2017 report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), “during Rouhani’s first four-year term, at least 200 journalists and citizen-journalists were summoned, detained, and interrogated and at least 32 of them were given sentences ranging from three months to 16 years in prison.”

The Tehran MP, Elias Naderan, said: “Mr. Rouhani! Do you intend to open the cyberspace by appointing the person, whose intrinsic duty—as a dedicated former member of security intelligence agencies—was to intercept the flow of information as ICT minister?”

Although, the self-proclaimed moderate president promised that Iran’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) would never press the "Filtering Button", he has indeed strongly pressed that button. So it seems that the only difference between hardliners and reformist rulers in Iran is the length of their beards.

The regime has tried to break down whatever remains of freedom, ever since it took control in 1979. After two decades of internet access in Iran, having now gained at least 46 million internet users, the regime’s censorship is on the rise. With that great surge in internet usage, Iranians are coming to express their objections to all of the regime’s restrictions on cyberspace. For them, it has become a dire situation.

Iranians are being victimized by regime’s domination over the internet, as they find their privacy is violated. The regime has brought a full grip of heavy-handed authority over the internet, on Iranians’ electronic transactions, and with monitoring of all their activities online.

While the regime has been continuously trying to restrict internet access, it has now introduced a more ominous operational phase—trying to spy on and subvert the cyberspace activity available to Iranians, with regime-created domestic apps, malware, trojans, worm viruses, etc. The Khomeinist regime hides its direct role in such internet censorship, manipulation, and sabotage, by inserting malware programs as weapons in the hands of state-backed hackers. For the Iranian people, getting online now holds that much more risk.

By Kaveh Taheri, co-founder and chairman of the ICBHR.Com, is a Turkey-based Iranian Human Rights researcher and journalist who has worked exclusively on Middle East. Kaveh, who was a former political prisoner in Shiraz, had been sent to prison for his writings and statements on his Websites and Weblogs, in Iran and fled the country through Turkey to save his life.

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