CHRI – Some Internet Users in Iran Warned of Prosecution for Accessing Blacklisted Websites
In 2019, Iranian media outlets began reporting on the sudden appearance of branch offices of a “Prosecutor General’s Cyber Division Rapid Reaction Center,” a new state agency that appears to be tasked with monitoring and censoring online content and activities.
In Iran, the government’s Working Group for Determining Instances of Criminal Content (WGDICC) is responsible for monitoring and censoring online content. However, Iranian courts have also ordered websites or apps to be blocked on several occasions.
The Prosecutor General’s Cyber Division Rapid Reaction Center could be the judiciary’s latest attempt to carry out these actions in a systematic way.
Guards at the Gate: The Expanding State Control Over the Internet in Iran provides an in-depth review of Iran’s internet policies and initiatives, in particular, the development of its state-controlled National Internet Network (NIN), which gives the government newly expanded abilities to control Iranians’ access to the internet and monitor their online communication.
New Threat to Internet Freedom in Iran
The internet and foreign social media apps are severely censored in Iran. For example, internet users in the country cannot access most pornography or gambling sites without online censorship circumvention tools, such as virtual private networks (VPNs).
The new center appears focused on preventing access to those websites by identifying users who try to access them without tools that would conceal their identities and then warning them of repercussions if they continue to attempt to access them.
On February 27, 2019, Mehdi Haghdadi, the director of the judiciary’s cyber crimes division in Khorasan Razavi Province, was quoted saying his staff is able to precisely identify individuals seeking to access online gambling sites:
“We can tell what system, mobile phone or home computer someone is using to access certain websites. Their IP address shows up, too. All of this happens instantaneously. The target individuals are sent a warning that they have been identified and if they persist, they will be pursued through their IP address and prosecuted. Our programming also enables us to find the immediate location of the individuals.”
“Those who try to access these sites will first be sent a warning, and then appropriate judicial action will be taken in accordance with existing laws that punish gambling operators as well as gamblers for criminal activity,” he added.
Haghdadi’s descriptions match those found on web address 220.127.116.11, which is what shows up on Google when users conduct a Persian-language search using the center’s name.
Users Warned of Prosecution for Accessing Banned Site
CHRI has found that when a subscriber of Iran’s Hamrah Aval mobile phone company tries to access Telegram app channels without an SSL protocol(http://t.me), which enable encrypted data transfers, they will be redirected to the 18.104.22.168 website.
Then a message will appear on their screen, such as, “By the order of the Prosecutor General, accessing this content is prohibited and in violation of the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Your device specifications and internet identification have been recorded.”
Then a number appears, representing how many times the website has recorded the user’s attempts to access the site, with the warning: “If you repeat this action, your IP will be reported for prosecution.”
After four attempts, the user is told, “Because of your repeated actions in trying to access an illegal content provider, your IP has been reported for prosecution.”
A screenshot of the first warning a user is issued by the Prosecutor General’s Cyber Division Rapid Reaction Center when they try to access a website that has been blacklisted in Iran.
It’s not clear why subscribers of this mobile phone company are redirected to the center’s website when subscribers of other companies are not.
Hamrah Aval did not respond to questions by CHRI regarding why they redirect their users to this site other than, “Dear subscriber, regarding this matter, we declare that Hamrah Aval does not pursue problems related to social media.”