The Iranian government, in a joint project with several domestic universities, is spending $36 million to develop what it calls “smart filtering” in order to strengthen its Internet censorship capabilities.
Smart filtering refers to the selective blocking of content within a website, as opposed to the complete blocking or shutting down of an entire website.
The initiative, announced by deputy Communications and Information Technology Minister Ali Asghar Amidian in an interview with the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) on February 18, 2016, reflects growing concern among hardliners in Iran over the state’s ability to control the citizenry’s access to information given the huge growth of Internet use in the country.
It also reflects an unspoken acknowledgement of the state’s movement away from the wholesale blocking of websites that have become widely used in Iran, by both the citizenry and state officials.
According to Asadollah Dehnad, the acting director of the Telecommunications Company of Iran, who was quoted by Citna, the Iranian technology news agency on January 18, the average Iranian spends more than two hours a day on Telegram and “that means many times more than watching [state] television.”
It has been almost a decade since Iranian officials promised to introduce “smart filtering.” To date, however, they have had little success.
While Iran can selectively filter content created inside Iran, Internet experts have long questioned the technological feasibility of smart filtering more broadly. The real target for the Iranian state censors are websites and applications hugely popular with Iranians that are based outside the country, and as long as these companies’ servers are hosted outside of Iran and encrypted, there is little likelihood of smart filtering capabilities.
Earlier, on August 4, 2015, Communications and Information Technology Minister Mahmoud Vaezi noted that because Internet users in Iran had jumped from three million to 20 million in only two years, “we plan to implement the [smart filtering] project by the end of this year (March 22, 2016), no matter how much it costs.”
Speaking to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Colin Anderson, a researcher on Iran’s Internet policies, criticized the decision on developing new censorship tools.
“Iran has one of the slowest and most unstable Internet connections in the region, in part due to issues of past management of the network and the requirements of filtering. Instead of more mandates for more interference and control, the Iranian government should seek to improve the resiliency and interconnection of Iran to the global Internet,” Anderson said.
How will the budget for “smart filtering” be spent?
Although Iranian officials claim a number of universities, namely Shahid Beheshti, will be receiving funds for helping the “smart filtering” project, it is likely that the necessary hardware and software would be imported from abroad. In recent years, Beijing, which boasts of having spent $770 million on its “Great Firewall of China” to control all incoming and outgoing online traffic, has been Iran’s main supplier of Internet censorship tools.
In 2012, the FBI published a report accusing China’s ZTE Corporation of selling a $130 million Deep-packet inspection (DPI) system to Iran – a “powerful surveillance system capable of monitoring landline, mobile, and Internet communications.”
According to a Reuters report, the sale, which at the time was in violation of international sanctions on Iran, included powerful U.S.-made surveillance products manufactured by U.S. firms like IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco Systems, Dell, and Symantec.
“The fate of the Islamic Revolution is tied to cyberspace,” said hardline ideologue Rahimpour Azghadi on February 17, 2016. “We can use existing tools and capacities to spread the great message of the Revolution.”
Official media in hypocritical war with Internet
The wide popularity of Telegram has led to frequent calls by extremist circles to ban the instant messaging application. Notably, the Gerdab website, run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ cyber crimes unit, has denounced the app for carrying content in violation of Internet morality laws, even though many Iranian hardline activists and media outlets host their officials pages on Telegram. Supreme Leader Ali Khameni’s page alone has nearly 220,000 followers.
Domestic search engines, Gorgor and Parsijoo, have also been developed by state agencies at a cost of millions of dollars to provide content results that are more selective.