Iran: Cyberspace ayatollahs

The Revolutionary Guards, the Supreme Council for Cyberspace and the Working Group for Identifying Criminal Content

Content filtering, control over Internet service providers, the interception of communications, cyber attacks and the imprisonment of bloggers and netizens are common practice in Iran. Three bodies are responsible for carrying out this policy of repression inside the country: the Supreme Council for Cyberspace, the Organized Crime Surveillance Centre and the Revolutionary Guards.

Supreme Council for Cyberspace

The Supreme Council for Cyber-Space was formed in March 2012 by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Its mission is to protect Iranians from Internet dangers. It is composed of senior military and political figures including the speaker of parliament, the head of the judiciary the ministers of culture and intelligence, the commander of the Republican Guards and the attorney general.

Iran’s legal system is expected to carry out the orders of the Supreme Council for Cyberspace but judges and prosecutors can also decide on their own initiative to block access to a site. Censorship procedures are far from clear in Iran.

Working Group for Identifying Criminal Content

The policies and decisions of the Supreme Council for Cyberspace are applied and carried out by the Working Group for Identifying Criminal Content. The group was created in 2008 under article 22 of the law on Internet crimes and has 13 members. It comes under the responsibility of the attorney general. Since it was created, it has ordered the temporary or permanent closure of hundreds of news sites. On its website, the group encourages citizens to report criminal content and prides itself on having received 500,000 voluntary reports.

Revolutionary Guards

This military organization was formed on 5 May 1979 to combat counter-revolutionary forces. It was placed under the direct authority of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution. Khomeini. Since then, the Revolutionary Guards have become a sprawling network that exercises its influence in various sectors of Iranian society. Its privileged position allows it to act as the main agent in content filtering and online censorship, and cracking down on netizens.

In 2009, the Revolutionary Guards formed the Organized Crime Surveillance Centre, which is the public and media face of the online crackdown. When it was formed, the Centre officially announced the dismantling of a “malevolent” online network and the arrests of those behind the incriminated websites. A few days later, “confessions” of those arrested, together with their photos, were posted on the Organized Crime Surveillance Centre website http://www.gerdab.ir.

Those arrested were forced to admit to their intention of “corrupting” Iranian youth by publicising pornographic sites and to participating in a plot supported by the Americans and the Israelis.

When the telecommunications sector was privatized in 2009, the Revolutionary Guards took over the Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI), which owns the main Internet service provider in Iran. Every Iranian ISP has to lease its bandwidth to the TCI.

The TCI is also responsible for ordering the blocking of websites and boasts it has blocked access to millions of sites. In practical terms, thousands of sites and millions of pages cannot be accessed. Censorship, designed officially to protect the public from immoral content, has been extended to cover political news and information. Today it is easier to access pornography online than websites that are critical of the government.

The Revolutionary Guards run several parallel branches and sections that specialise in repression. The intelligence department, analogous to the intelligence ministry, has a detention centre in Evin prison, known as section 2A, where no laws apply. Several former detainees report that solitary confinement and torture are routinely used to obtain confessions. The netizen Vahid Asghari, whose only crime is hosting the websites of government opponents, has been held since 2008 and subjected to such atrocities.

Halal Internet

No matter how diligently the Supreme Council for Cyberspace and the Working Group for Identifying Criminal Content work to make the Internet a “safe” place for Iran’s citizens, it is not enough for the Iranian authorities. For more than 10 years they have been working to establish a national network that is not connected to the World Wide Web, known as “our own Internet” or the “Halal Internet”. The government of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supported by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, moved quickly to set it up after a series of cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear installations. Ahmadinejad’s successor Hassan Rohani followed suit. On 23 January this year, the official news agency ISNA quoted the president as saying a national news and information broadband network was on the agenda for next year.

The authorities’ Halal Internet idea has been around for 10 years or so. To help implement the closed network, Iran has sought expertise from another country well versed in the control of information: China. Their co-operation was unveiled by the deputy information minister, Nasrollah Jahangiri, during a visit to Iran by a delegation from the Chinese State Council Information Office. In an official statement on the information ministry website, he said: “We welcome co-operation between our two countries in the management of the Internet market … We hope to take advantage of the expertise of Chinese companies to install a national news and information network in Iran…”

News websites attacked, netizens persecuted

According to information received by Reporters Without Borders, the email accounts of Iranian Internet users, mostly journalists and political activists, were targeted by a wave of online attacks in late 2013. This is a method often used by the Islamic Republic to identify sources and contacts and to gather evidence against journalists and political activists

On 12 July, the website Narenji (“orange” in Farsi), which specialises in new technology, reported that seven members of its editorial staff had been arrested and the site could no longer be updated. The statement was removed from the site a few hours later.

Local journalists reported that eight young new media specialists had been detained. Ali Asghar Hormand, Abass Vahedi, Alireza Vaziri, Nassim Nikmehr, Malieh Nakehi, Mohammad Hossien Mossazadeh and Sara Sajad were arrested and taken to an unknown location after their homes were searched and personal effects removed.

On 13 July, a Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced seven contributors to the Sufi website Majzooban Noor to long prison terms. They were found guilty of propaganda against the state, insulting the Supreme Leader and endangering national security. Hamidreza Moradi was jailed for 10 years, Reza Entesari for eight-and-a-half years, and Mostafa Daneshjo, Farshid Yadollahi, Amir Islami, Omid Behrouzi and Afshin Karampour for seven-and-a-half years each. All were also banned from political and journalistic activity for five years. The netizens, who had been held in Evin prison since September 2011, and their lawyers boycotted the hearings in the unfair trial.

On 4 December 2013, a website allied with the Revolutionary Guards reported that the Guards’ intelligence section had arrested 16 cyber-activists in the city of Kerman. They were accused of “being in contact with enemy media outlets based abroad with the aim of producing content for educational websites targeted at citizen-journalists.”

 In early December, cyber attacks were launched against several opposition and news websites, including Nedai Sabaz Azadi, Sabznameh, Sabez Procxi, Norooz, Ostanban, and 30mail. Responsibility for the attacks was claimed by the cyber army of the Revolutionary Guards in Kerman province.

The website Entekhab (The Choice) has been unavailable since 1 February as a result of a complaint made by the Tehran public prosecutor and a closure order issued by the Tehran media court.

Entekhab editor Mstafa Faghihi told the government news agency Irna that the site was blocked for publishing a letter in which a university academic criticized Iran’s nuclear policy as well as other sensitive issues such as public health and education.

On 16 February, a Tehran revolutionary court sentenced Arash Moghadam to eight years in prison on charges of anti-government propaganda and “insulting Islam’s sacred values” in connection with content he posted on Facebook.
Arrested at his Tehran home by men in plainclothes last August, he had been detained ever since in Section 350 of Tehran’s Evin prison.