Seven months into Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s second term, his Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi has introduced a new pricing scheme for internet usage that violates net neutrality while increasing state censorship capabilities, a Center for Human Rights in Iran report revealed.
Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all online data the same, and provide the conditions for unfettered access.
In these circumstances, no service, application, or website would be granted preferential treatment, resulting in an open internet devoid of discrimination and censorship.
In an interview with the state-run Broadcasting service, Rouhani said he was seeking to lower pricing rates.
“We are trying to make cyberspace a more open environment,” claimed the Iranian president, who was re-elected in May 2017.
“Instead of trying to sell more internet subscriptions, we are seeking to make the bandwidth wider and hopefully from December 1, people will be offered lower internet usage prices.”
However, lower prices will only be offered to those who opt to access state-approved online content. Those who opt to access non-state-approved content will be subject to higher prices.
Providing monetary incentives and tailored content is a direct violation of net neutrality and the human right of access to information. Net neutrality requires treating “all content, applications, and services equally without discrimination.”
Developer Jadi Mirmirani, who runs the “Free Keyboard” blog, wrote on December 5, that the new rates “could turn out to be a very aggressive censorship mechanism.”
“This means that if someone dares to access the real internet [over state-approved content], he will reach his [download] limit much faster than someone who only surfs approved sites, and there is no option to pay more money to increase your limit. What could be a more effective censorship tool?” he wrote.
In Iran, internet usage is charged per a downloaded or uploaded gigabyte.
Under the pricing scheme promoted by the Rouhani administration’s Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology as “Fair Usage,” an internet subscriber who has purchased 160 gigabytes of traffic per month would be given a 50% discount on every gigabyte used to access state-approved content.
For example, an Iranian who uses the state-approved Gap messaging app would pay half the price that one who uses the foreign-made Telegram messaging app would pay.
In other words, Iranians who want to access non-state-approved content can only do so at a more expensive rate and slower download speed. By introducing this pricing scheme, the state is not only violating net neutrality, it is also more effectively censoring content by associating foreign content with higher costs.
If users utilize virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass state filters, the encrypted data will be flagged by Iranian internet service providers (ISPs) and users will be charged the higher rate.
Although dividing traffic into domestic and international categories is not by itself a violation of net neutrality, giving preferential treatment to one type of traffic amounts to discriminatory interference and undermines the rights of access to information and freedom of choice.
State attempts to control the internet in Iran have intensified since Jahromi announced that the government’s “smart filtering” system has failed nine years after it was introduced at a cost of some 110 billion tomans (approximately $31.7 million).
So-called “smart filtering” was introduced in Iran to enable the state to selectively censor specific content within a website or app without having to block it completely.
Under this new filtering system, users must verify their identity and other personal details before being allowed to access online content. After users provide their full name, National Identification Number, profession, and gender, ISPs will censor their online content according to that information.
“This plan not only violates user privacy, it will also lead to gender discrimination for different sites, just like technical textbooks,” tweeted Iranian user NaiemeG.
In Iran, women are prohibited from studying certain subjects because of their gender while men can study whatever they choose.