Iranian authorities have blocked access to Google’s search engines and Gmail services inside Iran. The move was described as the first steps by the Islamic republic to establish a walled-off national intranet sequestered from the worldwide Internet.
From the early hours of 24th September, Internet users were blocked from accessing Google search engine. “Due to the repeated demands of the people, Google and Gmail will be blocked nationwide. They will remain blocked until further notice,” Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, the head of the state-run body in charge of online censorship and computer crime ( Commission to Determine Instances of Criminal Content) said 5 hours before the filtering began. Internet users from inside the country report that while they are not being diverted to the standard “filtered” message given for blocked sites, they are unable to access Google services.
Justice For Iran (JFI) condemns the ban on access to Google and Gmail by the Iranian authorities as a violation of the human right to freedom of information. JFI also demands the European Commission to adopt restrictive measures against Abdolsamad Khoramabadi and his inclusion into the list of individuals under sanction.
This is not the first time Iranian authorities have blocked access to Gmail. Iranian authorities temporarily cut off access to Google and Gmail in February 2012, ahead of March parliamentary elections. Judicial authorities in Iran admit to filtering more than 5 million websites deemed immoral or antisocial. Iranians have announced working on a “national Islamic Internet” or so-called “halal Internet” inside Iran, which would make monitoring and censoring much easier for authorities.
While filtering particular websites has been a longstanding strategy of the Islamic Republic to limit access to information, the authorities have also taken measures to cut off access to the Internet entirely during the post-election upraising in June 2009. In addition to Internet access, mobile and SMS services were also shut down in order to stifle demonstrations. As the next presidential elections approaches less than a year away, Khoramabadi claims that the decision to expand Internet filtering is due to “wide demand” from Iranians angry about the controversial YouTube video insulting the Prophet Mohammad. Although YouTube has been blocked inside Iran for years, users could still access its content and watch films via Google+ and Gmail. According to our research and consultation with Internet users in different parts of the country with different Internet Service Providers, access to Gmail and Google is widely blocked throughout the country.
Given the immense importance of the Internet in the everyday lives of people throughout the world, the right to access to Internet has become a central manifestation of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, including the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas regardless of frontiers, as provided in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Internet is one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies.” says Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, in a recent report. Repressive governments have monopolised control over the Internet around the world, developing a sophisticated filtration system, blocking content and employing special web crime task forces to target online dissent.
Even though Iran ratified the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) on 4 April 1968, authorities continue to violate articles guarantying the right to freedom of expression as mentioned in article 19 of the above covenant. The Iranian cyber policy is justified by citing “national security”, “public order”, “public health” and “morals”, but these are interpreted and defined by the commission who then apply the term “internet-based crimes” to cover a wide range of activities, including expression of any idea, opinion and/or expression via any media casting any critical view of the Iranian government or the socio-political system.
The commission composed of 12 members, meets every 15 days to determine new instances of cyber crimes. The commission is composed of representatives from the following Ministries: Education, Communication and Technology, Intelligence, Judiciary, Science, Research and Technology, Islamic Culture and Guidance, as well as the heads of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) the Islamic Propagation Organisation, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Police Force, and Iranian Police. Two members of the national parliament are also participating in the commission: the president of the commission for industry and the president of the judiciary commission. This commission is not politically independent and the meetings are held under control of Islamic Republic of Iran’s general prosecutor office. Once an updated list of cyber crimes and regulations are set every 15 days, they are enforced by the Iranian Cyber Police.
Decisions made by the commission are valid with at least 7 members present and a 50% vote, although few details are made publicly available.
Abdolsamad KHORAMABADI, head of “Commission to Determine the Instances of Criminal Content”
Abdolsamad KHORAMABADI has been heading the Commission to Determine the Instances of Criminal content since its creation in July 2010, and participates in decision-making as a permanent member.
Khoramabadi holds a PhD in Criminology and Criminal law from University Of Tehran. After injuring his left arm during the Iran-Iraq war and has a prosthetic arm, Khoramabadi worked as prosecutor at Supreme Court of Islamic Republic of Iran before becoming the deputy of Iran’s General Prosecutor.
The commission is directly responsible for systemic violations of human rights, especially those related to Article 11,12, 18 and 19 of UDHR, 5 and 19 of ICCR, by banning and filtering websites to the general public, and occasionally disabling Internet access altogether. Websites are shut down or blocked without any notification and under the final decision of the commission. Because directives are updated every 15 days, one can be charged retroactively with an offence that was not considered a crime at the time it occurred. A wide range of globally-accessed sites, from weblogs, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, to goodreads.com and news agencies such as BBC, Guardian, and CNN have been blocked for years in Iran.
The Iranian cyber police, who enforce all rulings made by the expert commission, continuously violate the privacy of ordinary citizens. Recently, a couple was arrested because of having shared their family photos with friends on Facebook.
Websites containing information on any religion other than Shi’a Islam are under strict monitoring and control. Those individual who leave Islam to convert to another religion, as well as all members of the Bahai faith, can be prosecuted and their web content can be eliminated. According to KHORAMABADI, in the commission’s first meeting in January 2010, it recognized cyber crime in following seven vague categories, covering a wide range of offences according to Commission’s own interpretations and often arbitrary inclinations:
- Contents against public moral and ethics
- Contents against Islam and Islamic values
- Contents against public security
- Contents against public officers, authorities and governmental organizations (natural and legal identities)
- Contents to use in cyber and other crimes
- Crimes related to multimedia and copy right
- Content that stimulates, encourages, or an invitation to crime (related to other crimes)
In his interview with 20:30, a daily show on IRAB2 famous for its propaganda in favor of government, Khoramabadi declared: “The American website of Google and Gmail will be blocked through the country until the next notice.” Other Google services like Google Reader, Google translator and YouTube have been already banned in Iran.