What Did Iranian President Rouhani Actually Achieve?

He ran—and won—on a campaign of openness and internet freedom. But implementing it has been complicated.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets reporters and photographers during a flight from the northeastern city of Mashhad to Tehran late on Wednesday.

Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

A version of this piece originally appeared on Global Voices Advocacy as part of a larger Article 19 research report.

In 2013, Hassan Rouhani ran for president of Iran—and won—as a moderate candidate. He promised big changes to liberalize Iran’s economy and give citizens greater access to information.

Front and center in his message was a pledge to improve internet access—and to make it easier to access, freer, and more affordable for more Iranians. This bold platform stood in contrast to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who spearheaded the regime of censorship and control that has shaped Iran’s internet policy for more than a decade.

Now Rouhani hopes to win re-election on Friday, and internet policy remains a key issue for Iran’s population of 80 million, a demographic dominated by tech-savvy youth under 35. With this in mind, it’s valuable to look back at his promises and policy goals, and how they’ve played out in practice. His success has been mixed, but the negative results haven’t entirely been his fault.

Rouhani’s central internet policy platform centered on better access, with a focus on increasing internet speeds to improve the country’s economic situation. He even issued a “Charter of Citizen Rights” that promises to protect free speech and online. But it’s unclear what, if any, legal basis the document holds. And importantly, Rouhani has had relatively little control over internet censorship. Following civil unrest in 2009, internet policy decisions became increasingly centralized under the office of the supreme leader. Now a Supreme Council of Cyberspace is the ultimate decision-making body on the internet. The council includes Iran’s judiciary and Revolutionary Guards, but not the president. One result of this setup has been a confusing patchwork as some platforms are blocked, some surveilled, and some permitted.

For instance, Iranians can’t access smaller, more secure apps such as Signal and Wispi. But in a bit of good news, Rouhani’s administration has successfully prevented other social media platforms from being blocked, including WhatsApp, Line, Tango, and Telegram. However, these platforms are still subject to strict limitations, as are their users. For Telegram—which is the most popular messaging app in the country with an estimated 40 million users—the government now requires all public channels with more than 5,000 followers to register with the Cyber Police. (The policy is supposedly intended to combat “fake news.”) In January, Telegram channel administrators found that when they registered with the relevant authority, they were forced to add an automated government bot as an account co-administrator. The bot is suspected to enable wide-ranging surveillance abilities by allowing access to databases of specific users whose online activity can be further monitored.

Moreover, certain features of the app have been eliminated for Iranian users. The hardline judiciary (which does not lie within Rouhani’s control) blocked Telegram’s calling feature a day after it was released in Iran on April 14. The prosecutor general told Iranians during an April 22 state TV broadcast: “With the help of all our security agencies, we have determined that Telegram voice calls are harmful to national security, especially so close to an election.”

Like Telegram, Instagram has become a platform where the Iranian government has exercised some power over speech, without shutting it down altogether. In May 2015, internet researchers cast doubt on the administration’s claims that the government was developing “sophisticated” technology to employ intelligent filtering on platforms like Instagram. It turned out that the government was simply taking advantage of the fact that at the time, Facebook didn’t use https on Instagram’s mobile application. In a similar and vague policy, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology announced a new effort this past February to penalize specific users for posting immoral content, instead of censoring or penalizing the platforms themselves.

Among thousands of websites censored under the Rouhani administration is Global Voices, the site that I write for. For several years, Global Voices was blocked in Iran, but when we transitioned from http to https in 2015, it suddenly became available. This indicated that the block was dependent on technical specifications contingent upon http. Iran’s filtering committee now seems to have selectively reinstated the filtering on our new https website, but it has limited this to the Persian-language version of Global Voices.

Unfortunately, arrests, intimidations and the fear of looming surveillance work to stifle freedom of expression more than any technical filter can. This past year was punctuated with the arrests and physical takeovers of the social media pages of models and members of the fashion industry. Recently, various reformist and pro-Rouhani Telegram channels have been seized and their administrators arrested.

Another prominent government strategy is to hack or target users online, particularly to dissuade or frighten Iranians from using certain online activities or expressions. The Iran Threats project details the sophisticated strategies and technologies employed to attack users, including malware aimed at journalists, and various methods of hijacking Telegram accounts. In January and February, a number of journalists, members of Iranian civil society, and activists overseas were on the receiving end of Iranian government phishing attacks. Several of these people received a notice from Gmail informing them that their emails were the target of “nation-state” attackers.

Rouhani’s administration has made good on his promises to develop the country’s telecommunications system, but it’s come with a heavy price. Improvements of internet development—like faster internet speeds and incentives for entrepreneurship—make it easier to hand user data to the government. For example the National Internet Project aims to localize all internet services and place servers inside the country. But while this does promote local development, it also puts local users’ data under the firm jurisdiction of Iranian law and the notoriously conservative judiciary, potentially increasing opportunities for government surveillance. Isa Saharkhiz, a reformist journalist who is, was arrested after his mobile messages were exploited for cellphone monitoring during the 2009 protests. Iranian American Nostrallah Khosravi-Roodsari is believed to have been arrested based on Iran’s mass surveillance of SMS data.

Nevertheless, there have been positive side effects. It used to be that all filtering happened at the national level, but now different internet service providers have their own policies. Surprisingly, many users have been able to access Twitter through one particular network, Shatel. Rouhani’s administration has also helped increase internet speeds in Iran tenfold, from 624 gigabits per seconds in 2013 to 4,000 gigabits per second in at the beginning of 2017.

While the Rouhani administration has claimed during this campaign that it has made great strides toward internet freedoms, its main achievement has been in preventing broad-based censorship on certain platforms. The implementation of blocks on thousands of websites continued throughout his time in office, as have numerous arrests and efforts to centralize user data into the hands of the government. And the work of Iran’s conservative judiciary and Revolutionary Guards has continued to strengthen state intimidation, arrests, surveillance, and censorship. As the country approaches its 12th presidential election, there is real reason to worry about Iranians’ ability to freely share and distribute information during this important political moment. The big question is: Can the Rouhani government find strength in its own values and take on the country’s more hardline powers?

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.