Iran to Expand Censoring Program with ‘Smart Filtering’

Iran is all set to expand its ‘smart filtering’ of the Internet. The country appears to be no longer interested in imposing a blanket ban on websites and will instead attempt to filter out the ‘harmful’ content.

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Tehran Telecoms Tower. Photo: Siavash Sam Anvari / Flickr

The method of smart filtering tries to censor unwanted or undesirable content without completely banning websites.

Iran has a long history of blocking websites that publish offensive or politically damaging content and employs one of the strictest Internet censorship programs in the world. Until now, Iran’s Internet policy was to ban these sites altogether, but now the country has started experimenting with selective filtering.

Popular US-based websites like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook are not available in Iran. However, tech-savvy users in Iran routinely bypass blocks on these sites with the help of virtual private networks (VPN).

When smart filtering is implemented, Iran may lift the blanket ban on these sites and monitor and filter their content selectively. Content that is deemed harmless will be accessible, while the supposedly harmful content will be unavailable. It is not exactly clear what impact the new move will have on Internet freedom in the country. Iranians have already expressed concern that the new move might block VPN access to these sites.

Currently the smart filtering program is being studied for its feasibility. Communications Minister Mahmoud Vaezi said that presently it is implemented on only one social network.

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Mahmoud Vaezi. Photo: Iran Human Rights

Vaezi added that the process will continue until they implement the filtering program on all sites. He was perhaps referring to the photo-sharing website Instagram as it is not blocked in Iran but the government filters its content.

The photo sharing app was initially available in Iran without any censoring, but some user accounts were blocked, including @RichkidsofTehran, a page that posted photos of young Iranians flaunting their riches. The page soon reappeared as @RichkidsofTeh. The new filtering program will censor offensive photos and content on the site.

Vaezi said that by implementing the new filtering program, they are preventing access to unethical content on Internet sites while making sure that the public can access general content. The government plans to fully implement the new filtering program by June 2015.

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In Iran, unethical content can mean anything from porn to photos of women not wearing the Islamic dress. Unethical content is not the only problem bothering the authorities; they are also concerned about content that could be politically damaging.

In 2009 when the country was rocked by anti-government protests, netizens used social media to spread news about the movement, which was eventually suppressed by security forces.

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was President, Iran toyed with the idea of replacing the Internet with a government controlled national Intranet that wouldn’t be connected to the World Wide Web. However, those plans didn’t materialize.

More than 30 million Iranians use the Internet. While the incumbent President is in favor of easing some restrictions on social media, the reality is quite different. Harsh punishments await activists, bloggers, and journalists who publish offensive content online.

Recently the government sentenced a man to death for insulting the ‘Prophet of Islam’ on Facebook. The 30-year-old blogger, Soheil Arabi, was convicted a few months back. There was a social media uproar against the verdict, but the Supreme Court has upheld the sentence, and he faces imminent execution; and Arabi is not an isolated case.