Al-Monitor – “Please see this link,” Iran’s minister of information and communications technology replied on Twitter after an internet freedom activist confronted him about net neutrality. Typically, Iranian government officials would ignore such affronts on social media, but Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi engaged with a hyperlink to AT&T’s sponsored data program: His way of saying that they do it in America, too.
As Washington debated net neutrality regulation in December, Iran introduced a new internet pricing scheme. President Hassan Rouhani defended the move in an interview with state television on Nov. 28. He said, “We are trying to make cyberspace a more open environment. Instead of trying to sell more internet subscriptions, we are seeking to make the bandwidth wider and hopefully from Dec. 1, people will be offered lower internet usage prices.”
Iran offers the world’s cheapest broadband with an average cost of $5.37 per month according to a 2017 study conducted by BDRC Continental and Cable.co.uk. But Rouhani failed to mention that prices will only be offered to subscribers who access state-approved websites, as in the domestic internet. Anyone who wants access to the global web — such as censored social media websites like Facebook and Twitter — will have to pay more. Since 2016, Iranian mobile and internet service providers have been offering discounts to subscribers who limit their online access to state-approved websites. On Nov. 13, Twitter-friendly Jahromi announced that Iranians would get a 30% discount on their internet bill if they used state-approved social media networks.
“If you use those 500 selected websites by the ICT Ministry, you pay less, but if you go outside the country, you have limited data,” Amir Rashidi, an internet security and digital rights researcher for the Center for Human Rights in Iran, told Al-Monitor. “This way of violating net neutrality is a kind of aggressive censorship method. … It pushes users to stay inside the county and use state-approved websites.”
To explain the new regulations, Rashidi used Iranian internet service provider Hi Web as an example, since it has the highest data limit. The company offers three packages: international usage, domestic usage or a joint usage. If a subscriber wants to sign up for international and domestic usage, they have to carefully balance their web use to keep within monthly limits. Since many international websites are blocked in Iran, circumvention tools are needed to access them, thus raising the cost for subscribers who quickly reach their monthly limit.
“I stream lots of YouTube videos and Netflix films, store my data on clouds and so on — so this decision was really great for me,” said Jeff Mosawy, a developer living in Tehran. “I’m paying less and getting more.” At the same time, Mosawy also noted that it can be expensive for Iranians who occasionally use the internet and want high speed but don’t need much data.
“At first glance, it seems like lower prices at more value, but at least not for me,” explained Hossein from the northern Iranian city of Rasht. “I ordered 700 gigabytes for one month, and it was finished within 15 days!”
During the debate in Washington over net neutrality, five members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) warned that strict regulations could embolden authoritarian governments like China, Iran and North Korea to strengthen their grip over the internet. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said, “If in the United States we adopt regulations that assert more government control over how the internet operates … it becomes a lot more difficult for us to go on the international stage and tell governments: ‘Look, we want you to keep your hands off the internet.’”
While these recent steps by the Iranian government violate net neutrality, the reality is that Iranians have been struggling with internet freedom for years. They rely heavily on circumvention tools to navigate the internet since popular websites are blocked. The irony of the situation is that Iranian government officials are very public about their use of blocked Western social media. Political dissidents are often hacked, arrested and even jailed for their online activism, making Iran one of the worst countries in the world for internet freedom.
Despite the crackdown, Tehran’s investment in its national information network — better known to some as its domestic, or halal, internet — has greatly improved internet access, bandwidth and speed. This in turn has enabled more Iranians to have access to the internet. First announced under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005-13), the national internet project was set to be completed in 2015 and is now scheduled for 2019.
Iran has taken numerous steps to make the national information network a reality. The Iranian government is pushing hard for the physical hosting of data and services used by Iranians within its country’s borders. Similarly, the Iranian government has asked Telegram CEO Pavel Durov to transfer his messaging app’s servers to Iran. Some officials have threatened that if Durov doesn’t comply, they will have to shut it down. Over half of Iran’s 82 million population are Telegram users, making it the country’s most popular app. Rights groups argue the government demand is about censorship and control. During the recent protests, Iranians disseminated information and footage quickly around the country, prompting the government to temporarily block Telegram and Instagram. Iranian lawmakers, 170 in total, blamed foreign apps for fomenting unrest and providing service to terrorist groups like the Islamic State. With the new internet scheme, there’s a growing sense that Iranians are being forced to choose state-approved websites. In turn, this gives the government greater control of what people consume on the national internet
A tech entrepreneur based in Tehran told Al-Monitor that the domestic internet will not catch on because Iranians want to be connected with the international community. “We got to get Iran and this digital generation to connect with the rest of the world and start looking at the world as a bigger marker for Iranian tech companies, entrepreneurs, innovators — and part of that is to liberalize the web.”
Holly Dagres is an Iranian-American analyst and commentator on Middle East affairs. Currently living in Egypt, she is the assistant editor at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. On Twitter: @hdagres