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Iran Admits Throttling Internet To 'Preserve Calm' During Election

A supporter of President-elect Hassan Rohani works on her laptop in one of his campaign offices in Tehran before the June 14 vote.
In an unusual move, Iran's minister for communications and information technology, Mohammad Hassan Nami, has acknowledged that the country restricted the speed of the Internet in the days leading up to the June 14 presidential election.

"The reduction of the Internet speed, which some called 'disturbances', was the result of security measures taken to preserve calm in the country during the election period," Nami was quoted as saying in a June 25 interview with the Tasnim news agency.

It's not clear why the North Korean-educated Nami decided to publicly admit efforts to slow the Internet, a move widely seen as part of Tehran's attempts to disrupt the free flow of information. Iran has a record of slowing down the Internet and increasing online censorship at sensitive times, but officials rarely acknowledge such efforts.

Nami said Iran's efforts were aimed at preventing "foreigners trying to disrupt the election process" from crossing into the country's cyberspace.

He said several bodies, including his ministry, were involved in the effort, adding that there are currently no problems with the Internet in Iran.

'Everyday Level Of Craftiness'

Washington-based independent researcher Collin Anderson tells RFE/RL that less than a week after the June 14 vote, the Internet speed in Iran -- which he had earlier said was at an "extremely low level" -- had returned to normal.

"The throttling is not as aggressive as it used to be," Anderson says. "I think that things are still kind of throttled but in a normal way, so Iran's Internet is back to its normal, everyday level of craftiness."

Mohammad Hassan Nami, Iran's communications and information technology minister
Mohammad Hassan Nami, Iran's communications and information technology minister
Anderson has just published a scientific research paper proving the use of so-called Internet "throttling" -- or the reduction of service speed -- as a censorship mechanism by the Iranian government.

"There has been a clear and rather aggressive connection between political events and the speed of the Internet. And I showed that's measurable," Anderson says. "That's something that can be accounted for from nonpolitical data that was collected not for this purpose exactly. What I showed was that when there are times when the status quo was challenged, the Internet undergoes serious disruption."

In past weeks, Iranian media and everyday users reported slower Internet speeds and the blockage of certain services, including Gmail, Skype, and Viber. Many of the antifiltering tools Iranians use to bypass state censorship were also inaccessible. Heavy Internet disruption was also reported during the tumultuous 2009 reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, when the SMS system was also brought down by authorities.

"The Internet is in a coma," the "Ghanoon" daily wrote in a report issued in May.

There were also reports of increased online censorship, including the blockage of several news sites, just days before the vote.

Previous Denials

Authorities had never confirmed that the election was the core reason for the slowdown until now. In fact, officials had previously dismissed any connection.

"Many parameters are involved in the Internet's speed, but the election drawing near is not one of them," a deputy communications and information technology minister, Ali Hakim Javadi, was quoted by the French news agency AFP as saying in early May.

READ NEXT: Even Iran's Conservative Media Complain Of Filtering

Last week, Internet users began reporting that some disrupted online services had become accessible.

In the lead-up to the June 14 vote, the Internet was used extensively by citizens to discuss issues related to the election. The Internet and social-media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were also used by the campaigns of the main presidential candidates.

President-elect Hassan Rohani
President-elect Hassan Rohani
Just a few days after the vote, a number of Internet activists and bloggers called on Iran's President-elect Hassan Rohani to take action.

"Your presence on Twitter and other social-networking sites showed us that you are also aware of their importance in today's life," the activists wrote in an open letter published online.

The letter called on Rohani to improve Internet speed and ensure the Internet is managed by elected bodies.

"The situation of the Internet in Iran is not appropriate at all," the activists wrote. "The Internet is slow and the filtering prevents people from accessing information."

The signatories added that they used social-networking sites to encourage others to participate in the electoral process.

"We ask you to provide such conditions for us to have a motive in 2017 to again call on Iranians to cast your name in the ballot boxes," they wrote.

'National Internet'

The call comes amid reports that Iran is working on a "national Internet" that could make it harder for Iranians to access the World Wide Web.

In his interview with Tasnim, Nami denied that the country is seeking to limit access to the Internet by launching its own national network.

"It's not at all the case," said Nami, who is said to be the man behind the national Internet project. "We are [looking to become] a hub in the communications field."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.