CHRI – Judicial Order Tied to Previously Undeclared Policy of App Usage Level
Eight months after Iran blocked the country’s most widely used messaging app, Telegram, a deputy prosecutor has announced a judicial order to also filter Instagram due to what he described as over-usage of the social media app.
Instagram had not been blocked as of January 4, 2018, and it is unknown when the order will go into effect.
While Twitter and Facebook were blocked in 2009 and Telegram in 2018, Instagram remained accessible throughout the country without the use of censorship circumvention tools (such as virtual private networks), resulting in millions of Iranians, including state officials, businesses and celebrities relying on the app to reach their followers.
If Instagram is blocked, users will only be able to access it via VPNs, which can make access spotty, slow and cumbersome. It is unknown exactly how many people use Instagram in Iran but according to figures published by the online statistics research site Statista, the app had 23 million users in the country as of October 2018. If those figures are correct, it would make Iran the country with the eight highest Instagram usage.
A “Certain Level” Cap?
While announcing the judicial order to filter Instagram in an interview with the monthly Peyvast magazine on January 1, 2019, Deputy Prosecutor General in Charge of Cyberspace Javad Javidnia said, “Based on the Supreme Council of Cyberspace’s [the highest state authority in internet policy-making] decisions, the traffic on Instagram was not supposed to go higher than a certain level but unfortunately, it did.”
The secretary general of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC), Abolhassan Firouzabadi, reports directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who maintains oversight and control over the SCC’s policies and actions.
The judiciary itself also has the power to shut down websites or applications, order the deletion of content, and order filtering, as do the country’s cyber police.
Javidnia, who only recently took over the job from Abdolsamad Khorramabadi, did not specify the “certain level” cap on Instagram usage. His comment also marks the first time an Iranian official has mentioned on record that there is a limit on the app’s usage in the country.
No Opposition from Rouhani Administration
Before starting his new job in 2017, the head of Iran’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (Telecommunications Ministry), Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, had suggested in his social media postings that he was a proponent of improving internet access in the Islamic Republic, a claim also touted by Jahromi’s boss, President Hassan Rouhani, during both his election campaigns.
But in response to Javidnia’s statements, Jahromi only questioned what would happen next.
“Our assumption is that what the deputy prosecutor general has said is correct and filtering Instagram is within his legal authority, but it raises this question: What’s supposed to happen next?” Jahromi told reporters on January 2. “They should clarify this matter for the people and avoid polarizing the issue into those who are for or against filtering.”
“They should tell the people what will happen the day after filtering Instagram: Will it have any impact on people’s lives or the state? Will it reduce crime? There has to be some logic behind this decision,” he added.
Like many other Iranian officials, Jahromi relies on Instagram to reach large audiences (174,000 followers as of January 4) as well as access online content that is otherwise officially unavailable in Iran.
Iranian officials including the supreme leader have unabashedly continued to use all social media apps that have been banned for average citizens in Iran, so it remains unclear whether these officials will be subjected to any restrictions once the ban goes into effect.
The banning of Telegram, which according to the company had 40 million monthly users in Iran as of May 2018, resulted in more users turning to Instagram for their social media needs, especially businesses that rely on it for advertising products and services.
The order to ban Instagram is accordingly part of the state’s ongoing assault on internet freedom in Iran, where the rights of the Iranian people to information access and internet privacy, both integral to the fundamental right of freedom of expression, continue to be severely violated.
Separate Access Fee for Using Instagram?
One week before the order to ban instagram was announced, Telecommunications Ministry Spokesman Jamal Hadian tweeted a confidential letter signed by Hossein Fallah Joshaghani, the head of the Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA), ordering Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to only allow access to Instagram as a separate, chargeable product.
If the state agency’s order had been carried out, Iranian consumers would have to pay extra for accessing the social media app, which is normally free, on their mobile phones or via their personal Wi-Fi networks.
Asked whether Instagram would ultimately be filtered before the judicial order had been announced, Deputy Telecommunications Minister Amir Nazemi told a reporter on December 22, “This matter has not been approved by the authorities but some individuals are strongly determined to make it happen.”
Three days later, Jahromi called the order “useless” while suggesting a different way to censor content.
“In a meeting I had with communication specialists, they held the view that the CRA’s order was useless because, first of all, it will increase the use of online circumvention tools, and, secondly, we can achieve our goals by encouraging the use of parental control software instead,” tweeted the telecommunications minister on December 25.
“This view is correct and it is necessary to revise the order,” added Jahromi, who is extremely active on social media.
It is not clear what happened to the CRA’s order or whether Iranians will one day be told to pay to access Instagram. What is clear is that days after the order to ban the app was announced, no Iranian official including Jahromi has tried to block the order.
The same holds true eight months after Telegram was blocked in Iran.
Banning Instagram or requiring users to pay extra to access the app is a violation of net neutrality principles, which advocate free and unfettered internet usage without limitations, regulations or prohibitions.
Iran had already massively violated those principles after it officially launched its National Information Network in December 2017, resulting in internet access fees being determined not only by data usage but also by the kind of content (state-approved or not) users accessed.
“Is There Anything Else Left for You to Filter?”
After news of the pending ban began to spread on Iranian social media, some users condemned the judicial order as well as the telecommunications minister.
“If our young Minister Mr. Azari Jahromi keeps moving in this direction and firmly continues the filtering after doing it to Telegram and Instagram, he can put a star on his jacket sleeve for banning 10 popular messaging apps and social media networks before the year 1400 [on the Iranian calendar, March 2021],” tweeted web design Saman Barary on January 2.
Iranian citizen Kourosh Ziaie meanwhile tweeted: “So let’s say you filter Instagram, too. Will you be able to filter people’s thoughts, as well? Will it solve society’s problems? Will it solve unemployment? Will it solve these gentlemen’s financial corruption? Will it make you feel better? Is there anything else left for you to filter?”
“Filtering Instagram fired the final bullet at freedom of thought and expression in Iran,” tweeted Mohammad Reza Rostamzadeh, who describes himself as an online banking expert, that same day. “With this action, the state loses almost all the loyal forces it had left.”