Priya Kumar contributed to this report.
On June 14, 2013, Iran held presidential elections, the first since massive protests rocked the country after former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection in 2009. As with previous elections, this event was immediately preceded by a period of extensive Internet censorship and general bandwidth restrictions, a phenomenon known as “just-in-time blocking.”1 In the month surrounding the elections, Herdict, a platform that collects crowdsourced data about inaccessible and censored websites, and ASL 19, an anti-censorship advocacy organization, partnered to monitor the extent of the censorship.
During the partnership, ASL 19 asked Iranian users of the Psiphon circumvention tool to report inaccessible websites to Herdict. Between June 1 and July 1, 2013, Herdict received 3,533 reports from Iran that provide a unique look at Iranian censorship immediately before and after the election.
Mohammad Hassan Nami, Iran’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology during this period, told Tasnim News Agency that the restrictions on Internet usage were part of “security measures taken to preserve calm in the country during the election period,” according to Radio Free Europe.2 However, Herdict data shows a far broader set of restrictions on freedom of expression online.
Herdict users from Iran reported substantially more inaccessible sites with foreign domains than local .ir sites. Between June 1 and July 1, Herdict received 2,283 accessible reports and 1,250 inaccessible reports from Iran, for an overall inaccessibility rate of 35 percent. Of the 1,250 inaccessible reports, only 73 pertained to sites on the Iranian top-level domain (.ir); the remaining 1,177 inaccessible reports pertained to non-.ir sites (e.g., facebook.com, youtube.com, etc.).
ASL 19 conducted surveys that confirm this data. Their surveys show Iranians experienced more difficulty with non-.ir websites than with .ir websites. Between June 11 and July 1, 22 percent of survey respondents reported normal access to .ir websites, compared to 6 percent who reported normal access to non-.ir websites. During the same period, 90 percent of Herdict reports about .ir sites indicated those sites were accessible, compared to a 60 percent accessibility rate for non-.ir sites.
Censorship in Iran during this period was neither monolithic nor static, something underscored by looking at some specific sites. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are some of the most popular sites in the world, as well as frequent targets of censorship. During the election period, 49, 88, and 61 percent of reports from Iran about these sites, respectively, indicated that they were inaccessible. ASL 19 survey data also showed limited access to these sites.
In the post election period, access appears to have substantially improved. This is particularly true for Iranian news sites. Herdict collected reports about the websites for Farsi News, Gooya News, Iran News Network, Iranian Labour News Agency, Islamic Republic News Agency, Mashregh News, Mehr News, and Meyar News. Immediately following the election, 26 percent of the reports Herdict received about these sites indicated inaccessibility. But just over a week later, this number had dropped to barely over 5 percent.
Immediately following his election, President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged that Internet filtering doesn’t work and called social networking sites “a welcome phenomenon.” Whether this will lead to fundamental changes in the way Iran treats Internet freedom remains to be seen. But this most recent election demonstrates that Iran continues to improve its proficiency at targeted censorship concurrent with major events such as elections and historical anniversaries.