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Iranian Censorship Strategy Shows Increasing Political Sophistication, Research Reveals

Just after his supporters scored a victory in Iran’s 2016 midterm elections, an emboldened President Hassan Rouhani publicly broke a ban on saying the name of a reformist former president. State television muted the broadcast of Rouhani’s speech.

The absurd spectacle of a national leader silenced by his own government reflects the conflicted state of information policy in Iran. Rouhani has battled hardliners appointed by the Supreme Leader over blanket bans on Telegram, WhatsApp, and numerous websites. Meanwhile, more targeted information controls have continued and even intensified under his leadership. The 2016 elections were a time of particularly acute contradiction, as Rouhani campaigned for a more liberal Internet policy while his government continue to censor digital content.

Research by the Citizen Lab’s Ron Deibert, Joshua Oliver, and Adam Senft shines a light on one aspect of this complex picture. “Censors Get Smart: Evidence from Psiphon in Iran,” published by the Review of Policy Research, takes a deep dive into data provided by the circumvention tool Psiphon to reveal Iran’s increasingly sophisticated Internet blocking strategy around elections. These findings connect to ongoing research on the global trend of innovation and improvement in the tactics and techniques employed by government censors, presenting new challenges to those fighting for freedom of information.

Governments around the world commonly tighten information controls around sensitive events, including elections. Comparing Iranian elections in 2016 and 2013, our research finds a more targeted and strategically timed approach to election-related blocking in 2016. Technical advances allowed Iran to precisely target Psiphon in 2016, whereas in 2013 censors slowed, which made Psiphon unusable. In 2013, Iran increased Internet censorship throughout the election period, which drew domestic and international criticism; in 2016, censorship was intensified during especially sensitive weeks, but turned-off during the official campaign period when public scrutiny was greatest. Government leaders made public statements highlighting the lack of censorship on voting day, even though Psiphon had been targeted just days before. Overall, this strategic approach allowed the government to continue censorship while avoiding many of the political consequences of doing so.

This new research is based on unique access to analytics data from Psiphon for the 2016 election and similar data published for the 2013 election. Before the 2016 election, more than one million Iranians used Psiphon every day to get around the country’s Internet censorship regime. Psiphon was first developed at the Citizen Lab and is now run by a Toronto-based private company, Psiphon Inc.

Read the full paper here