Despite Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s 2013 campaign promises to lighten internet censorship, little has changed in the way of content filtering or bloggers’ arrests during his first year in office.
After the moderate politician’s election to the presidency in summer 2013, he signaled his intention to carry through on his promises of internet freedom by opening a Facebook account, along with his fifteen cabinet members. Yet the Committee for Determining Instances of Criminal Web Content (CDICWC), the body tasked with identifying content to be filtered, has continued to block platforms and applications such as WeChat in December 2013 and Viber—albeit temporarily—in January 2014. Other platforms, including Facebook, which was initially blocked in 2009, have not been made available under Rouhani’s presidency.
This disparity between stated policy and implementation comes at least in part from the complicated division of authority over the internet in Iran. The CDICWC is subject to the direction of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC), created in 2012 by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, a political hardliner who does not support the liberalization of Iran’s censorship policies. Although Rouhani is the chairman of the SCC, his moderate voice is often outnumbered by hardliners on the Council; of the Council’s 22 current members, nine were directly appointed by Khamenei.
The resulting power struggle over internet censorship between Rouhani and Khamenei became public in May 2014, when Rouhani and Communication Minister Mahmoud Vaezi tried to veto the CDICWC’s decision to block WhatsApp. CDICWC Head and Prosecutor General Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i accused Rouhani and Vaezi, the latter of whom is also a member of the CDICWC, of unlawfully refusing to carry out the ruling to block WhatsApp. In the end, the Communications and Information Technology Ministry that Vaezi leads implements filtering decisions. Vaezi later stated that the blocking of WhatsApp would not take place due to a flaw in the CDICWC’s voting on the day of the decision: one of the council members who voted was in fact no longer part of the Council.
Although the WhatsApp decision was the first public conflict over internet censorship between hardliners and moderates in Iran’s government, it is unlikely to be the last. However, it should be noted that moderates only argue for continued access to platforms such as WhatsApp “until an Iranian alternative can be made available” or until a more intelligent filtering system can be designed, both of which are in production at the request of the government.
Hannah Chartoff is a Research Associate for the Council on Foreign Relations.