April 20, 2019
Some Iranian officials have responded to Instagram’s decision to remove accounts it has associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) by pushing for a nationwide ban on the popular social media app.
Many Iranians have responded by calling not only for Instagram to remain unblocked but also for the government to rescind bans on other widely used apps.
Facebook, which owns Instagram, announced on April 17, 2019, that it had shut down the Instagram accounts of an unspecified number of Iranian officials with ties to the IRGC, an elite branch of the Iranian military.
A spokesperson for Instagram told the BBC Persian Service: “We are acting within limits set by US sanctions’ laws. We are cooperating with relevant government officials to make sure we are abiding by our legal obligations, namely regarding the designation of the Revolutionary Guard.”
The Trump administration designated the IRGC as a “foreign terrorist organization” on April 8, 2019.
As of April 16, Instagram had taken down approximately 20 accounts that were mostly under the names of former and current IRGC commanders but also judicial and government officials.
The blocked accounts include Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force; IRGC Commander in Chief Mohammad Ali Jafari; IRGC Ground Forces Commander Mohammad Pakpour; Armed Forces Chief of Staff Mohammad Bagheri; Human Resources Division Commander Mousa Kamali; Expediency Council Member and former IRGC Air Force Commander Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf; Member of Parliament from Qom and former IRGC Cultural Affairs Commander Ahmad Amirabadi Farahani; Expediency Council Member and former IRGC Commander in Chief Mohsen Rezaei; former head of the IRGC’s Shahid Bagheri missile production plant Ezzatollah Zarghami; Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s foreign affairs adviser Ali Akbar Velayati and Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi.
The accounts under Velayati and Raisi’s names were back up as of April 18 without explanation.
The identities of the account owners are unknown. The public relations office of Iran’s Armed Forces General Command issued a statement denying that Chief of Staff Mohammad Bagheri had “any page in cyberspace and social media.”
Iranian Officials Urge Retaliation
Instagram’s decision to ban the accounts has nevertheless rekindled calls by some Iranian officials to block access to the app.
“…[W]e should always be aware that if there is only one bridge through which the enemy can attack and enter the country, we should either strengthen that bridge to prevent harm, or be smart and cut it off as a last resort,” Javad Javidnia, the deputy prosecutor general in charge of cyberspace, told the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency on April 16. “Filtering is the ultimate step.”
“Therefore,” he added, “under these circumstances we declare that there’s no other way but for the government to take the necessary step to filter Instagram.”
Twitter was blocked in Iran in 2009 and the Telegram messaging app in 2018, but Instagram remained accessible throughout the country without the use of censorship circumvention tools (such as virtual private networks), resulting in millions of Iranians, including state officials, businesses and celebrities, heavily relying on the app to reach their audiences.
It is unknown exactly how many people use Instagram in Iran but according to figures published by the online statistics research site Statista, it had 23 million users in the country as of October 2018. If those figures are correct, it would make Iran the country with the eight highest Instagram usage.
Hardline member of Parliament (MP) Nasrollah Pejmanfar, who co-sponsored the pending Managing Social Messengers Bill that would hand over control of the internet to Iran’s military establishment, has strongly criticized the minister of the Information Communications Technology Ministry (Telecommunications Ministry), Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, for not encouraging the growth of Iranian-made alternatives to Instagram.
“Before discussing filtering Instagram, first we have to ask the president and the telecommunications minister what they have done to create suitable communication platforms to meet people’s needs?” he said.
He added: “Why have you allowed the people to turn to foreign social media? If we had taken steps in the early days to provide suitable modes of communication, we wouldn’t have needed to discuss filtering social media today.”
The Supreme Cyberspace Council (SCC), Iran’s top decision-making body related to the internet apart from the supreme leader, issued a statement condemning Instagram for blocking the accounts of Iranian officials, but did not threaten retaliation.
“Blocking the accounts of Iranian members on social media, such as Twitter and Instagram, and restricting access to scientific and research materials and services due to US sanctions, is a clear act of censorship and a violation of the free flow of information as well as human rights,” said the April 17 statement.
Iranians Push Back
Iranian officials’ threats to block Instagram were widely condemned by Iranian users on social media.
Mobile app developer Mostafa Alahyari tweeted: “Isn’t it against human rights to destroy businesses and startups [in Iran] by filtering their communication platforms and carrying out all sorts of embezzlement schemes?”
“Amin,” an Iranian user on Twitter, commented: “Doesn’t the SCC believe that blocking half of the entire internet and imprisoning people for writing a couple of sentences on Twitter or other places are more obvious examples of censorship and breaches of free speech and human rights?”
Tech reporter for the daily newspaper Iran, Mohammad Karbasi, wrote: “Instagram is the only global social media network that is still operating in Iran. Instead of filtering this last remaining network and separating us further from the world, it would be better to un-filter Twitter!”
Journalist Reyhaneh Tabatabai tweeted: “War conditions are the best gift to governments that have no interest in expanding civil society and political freedoms. They can silence opposition voices and crush freedom seekers with the backing of the masses by claiming wanting to preserve national solidarity and security in a time of crisis.”
Iranian-Made Alternatives to Instagram?
The launch of Iran’s National Information Network (NIN) internet service, which systematically filters key words and phrases and sends users to sites that deliver only state-approved and sometimes fabricated content, was preceded by a push within the Rouhani government to support the growth of domestic companies focused on developing apps and websites that could replace their non-Iranian versions.
However, Iran does not have a widely used alternative app to Instagram.
Software entrepreneur Majid Avaj commented sarcastically: “Now is the time for a dear Iranian compatriot to receive big loans to build a native version of Instagram. Opportunists must hurry!”
In recent years, Iranian officials have also encouraged domestic and foreign app companies to transfer their data to servers inside Iran.
This effort was largely successful in dealing with Iranian companies that were lured with promises of lower costs and faster service, but foreign firms have stayed away due to the state’s extensive censorship policies and ongoing practice of monitoring private user data.
In April 2018, Iranian authorities blocked the widely used Telegram messaging app after it had repeatedly refused to move its servers to Iran.
Now Iranian officials are calling on Instagram to transfer its servers to Iran and comply with state censorship policies.
Javidnia told Fars on April 17, 2019, “All cyber apps and their data bases should be transferred inside the country and they have to make a pledge to respect our laws, otherwise they will not be permitted to operate.”
He also criticized the Rouhani administration for failing to make the call, “This should have been coordinated by the Telecommunications Ministry but unfortunately nothing has been done to impose Iran’s legal control in this field.”
Since traditional means of advertising such as commercials and billboards are largely inaccessible to the public in Iran due to their high costs and many content rules, Telegram and Instagram are widely used by business owners to promote their products and services.
According to Tehran MP Mohammad Reza Badamchi, the state’s decision to block Telegram adversely affected some 200,000 Iranian jobs, forcing many to move their operations over to Instagram.
If Instagram is blocked, many businesses in Iran would find themselves without a cheap and effective means of advertising.
IT expert Ardavan Sijani tweeted: “There are several million people who are engaging in business and advertising activities on Instagram. Now you want to shut it down because a few pages belonging to IRGC commanders and officials have been blocked? Isn’t it important to protect the business activities of our people?”
Some Iranian companies meanwhile owe their existence to sanctions that block Iranians from purchasing advertising services on foreign apps.
These companies own pages on apps with large networks of followers in Iran, and can be paid to product services and products to them. For example, Iranian marketing firm Adsensor charges between 430,000 tomans and 715,000 tomans (approximately $100-170 USD) to advertise on Instagram during a 24-hour period.