Internet and digital security experts say the Iran's government is quietly implementing “intelligent” filtering of social networks, particularly Instagram.
In the past ten days, subscribers to Instagram and WhatsApp who use two-step authentication for signing into their accounts have reported that they are not receiving the required authentication codes via text message. Text message codes are also required for creating new accounts.
Many suspect that Iran’s mobile operators are blocking text messages containing keywords including “code”, “Telegram”, “WhatsApp”, and “Instagram”.
A majority of Iranian lawmakers issued a statement in January asking the government and the Judiciary for measures to restrict peoples’ activities on the internet. In February, an ad hoc parliamentary committee approved the outline of a controversial bill, ironically titled Legislation to Protect Cyberspace Users’ Rights, to limit access to various apps and platforms.
Many Iranians including some lawmakers say the implementation of the plan has practically been in progress in the past few months. Authorities have restricted bandwidth allocated to Instagram in the past few months and reduced Internet speed both of which make connecting to social media platforms difficult.
According to information technology expert Arian Eghbal, the recent disruption in access to Instagram and other platforms is deliberate. “There is evidence that our [filtering] system is working like China’s,” he told Entekhab news website on August 17.
An Instagram online training course advertised in Iran for millions whose small businesses depend on the scial media network
The slow internet has affected many areas of life, from navigation of taxis and cars to tens of thousands of large and small online businesses that rely on Instagram, as well as government and public online services.
“They are restricting access to the Internet to make communication between people harder … Those who wrote the Siyanat bill don't want people to conjoin in the cyberspace, talk to each other, and discuss social and political issues,” Gholamreza Nouri-Ghezeljeh, chairman of the Independents’ Faction in the parliament told Salam-e No website earlier this month.
Canada-based science and technology reporter Mehdi Sarami told Iran International that the government is quietly implementing the yet unapproved legislation to force people to use domestically developed platforms such as Soroush and Rubika which can easily be controlled.
A survey conducted by the state-run Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) in 2021 found that 73.6% of Iranians over the age of 18 use social media, including WhatsApp (64.1), Instagram (45.3), and Telegram (36.3). Only 4.8% reported that they use domestically developed platforms. Many of Instagram’s subscribers in Iran use it for business.
Instagram with around 45 million users is the only major social media platform not blocked in the country where other platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Telegram cannot be accessed without the use of anti-filtering software and VPNs (virtual private networks).
Nearly every Iranian with a smartphone has installed anti-filtering software that allows access to filtered applications and websites. Anti-filtering software, however, will time out if the internet speed is low. Nonetheless, with over 50 million users, WhatsApp is the most popular messaging application in Iran.
In June 2020 Pavel Durov, the CEO of the encrypted instant messenger
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has multiple accounts on Instagram and Twitter, but his loyal followers are behind the efforts to restrict access for citizens.
Iran has one of the world’s worst internet censorships, with tens of thousands of websites blocked since the early 2000s and most social media platforms banned. In the absence of free media and heavy censorship, many Iranians turn to social media for political news and information.