kyle bowenHow might the principle of net neutrality – in which Internet service providers (ISPs) enable users to access all web content and applications regardless of the source, without either favouring or discriminating against particular products or sites – be applicable to Iran? Kyle Bowen, researcher at Small Media, presents the key findings from a new report by his organisation, and asks whether Iran’s prioritisation of domestic platforms represents a violation of net neutrality principles.  

In the summer of 2014, the London-based NGO Small Media published a report examining a number of Iranian social networks that look suspiciously similar to their Western counterparts. Since then, we have observed a strong tendency among Iranian officials to encourage Iranians to opt for domestic alternatives over major, well-known Western sites. While this parochial approach to internet policy is often (justifiably) critiqued on censorship grounds, less attention is devoted to scrutinising such policies from the perspective of net neutrality. Is there a good reason for such an omission?

In our most recent report from March 2016, we consider how the concept of net neutrality might be applicable (if at all) in the Iranian context. Does Iran’s prioritisation of domestic platforms constitute a violation of net neutrality principles? And if so, is this a useful line of critique for freedom of information activists?

While the issue of net neutrality remains contentious, it is beyond the scope of this post to delve into that debate. We take as our point of departure the following strict definition of net neutrality, outlined by Kramer, Wiewiorra, and Weinhart (2012):

Net neutrality prohibits Internet service providers from speeding up, slowing down or blocking Internet traffic based on its source, ownership or destination.

Our aim here is simply to introduce this framework to debates around internet policy in Iran, and to examine whether or not it might resonate in Iranian tech circles. Before jumping into that analysis, we first discuss the implications of the Iranian Government’s prioritisation of domestic apps and platforms.

The Halal Internet

Perhaps the best illustration of the Iranian government’s insular approach to internet policy is the development of the National Internet (known as SHOMA). This project aims to provide a ‘clean’ version of the internet, accessible only to people inside the country, which will include affordable, high-speed, and unfiltered access to a limited number of government-approved sites.

Iran’s Information and Communications Technology ministry has given numerous subsidies to Iranian technology developers, while locally-based platforms such as Aparat (an Iranian version of YouTube) and CafeBazaar (an Iranian version of Google Play) can utilise SHOMA’s infrastructure, thereby allowing them to provide fast service to Iranian internet users. When compared to the disruption and lower speeds associated with foreign alternatives, this approach may provide incentives for Iranian users to switch to domestic options.

A recent report on Iran’s National Internet from Article 19 clearly illustrates this point:

Such subsidisation schemes, when matched with a concerted censorship of foreign resources, could make the National Internet versions of common Internet services the ‘path of least resistance’ for Iranian users who have become accustomed to online access and seek continued service.

By making domestic platforms cheaper and more accessible than foreign ones, the Iranian Government may in fact be shaping user behaviour. The extent to which they succeed depends on whether or not domestic platforms catch on with users — thus far, Iranian internet users have tended to prefer foreign platforms.

The case of Aparat: Iran’s YouTube

There is one local website, however, that has defied the odds.

When it comes to the promotion of domestic platforms, the Government has had mixed results. Iranians tend to prefer Google, Yahoo, Telegram (a free, cross-platform messaging app) and Instagram to their domestic counterparts according to research by the analytics company Alexa, which ranks such foreign sites significantly higher in terms of visitors and page views than their Iranian alternatives. Moreover, Iranians tend to feel less secure on domestic social networks than they do when using international ones.

Small Media discussed this perception in a 2015 report:

In a survey of over 2000 Iranian internet users we conducted in August 2015, over 40% of respondents said that they felt ‘not at all secure’ when using Iranian social networks, compared to 25% who felt the same way using foreign social networks. Only 16% of respondents reported feeling either ‘very secure’ or ‘somewhat secure’ using Iranian social networks, compared to 40% for foreign social networks.

Aparat, an Iranian version of YouTube, is the exception to the rule, proving wildly popular with Iranian users. According to Alexa, Aparat is the 6th most visited website in Iran, while YouTube comes in at number 108. It is important to note that this figure likely understates YouTube’s popularity, since it does not include users who access YouTube via a virtual private network (VPN), designed to circumvent censorship by providing users with a non-Iranian IP address. Still, the usage gap between Aparat and YouTube is significant, and the high ranking of Aparat speaks for itself.

One factor that has helped Aparat is quite simply that YouTube is blocked in Iran. YouTube was first blocked in December 2006, and then again during the post-election protests of 2009. In a January 2015 interview with Iran’s Information Technology News Agency (ITNA), Aparat’s CEO Mohammad Javad Shakouri acknowledged that the blocking of YouTube has benefitted Aparat considerably. When asked if his business gained from the blocking of YouTube, Shakouri responded:

[Yes], very much. We should be realistic, be clear and not lie to ourselves….There was a demand and we found it.

Aparat likely also benefitted from what could be termed a zero rating arrangement it struck with mobile carrier RighTel, which until last year was the only provider with a license to offer 3G in Iran. (Zero rating is when a mobile network offers free access to certain popular online services to its users). According to RighTel’s website, subscribers are not charged for bandwidth used to watch videos on Aparat, Aparat for children, and Filmio (an Iranian version of Netflix). Such an offer provides an obvious incentive to choose these platforms over their non-Iranian alternatives.

Conclusion

It seems clear that Iranian services generally, and Aparat in particular, benefit from filtering and content prioritisation agreements that could be said to violate net neutrality principles. But could objections to Iranian internet policy on net neutrality grounds be effective?

It seems that such appeals may fall on deaf ears domestically, but they could be more fruitful in the international arena. The recently published World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)+10 zero draft marked the introduction of net neutrality principles to a formal United Nations negotiation process for the first time, but there is ongoing debate about whether they should continue to be implemented at the national level, or be extended to cover traffic that traverses national borders.

The contours of this debate are still taking shape, and it looks as though no easy solution is in sight. Yet net neutrality may give Iranian civil society organisations a lens through which to form alliances internationally and to develop a new line of attack against internet policies that restrict the free flow of information. As fights over net neutrality continue to rage, it remains to be seen whether or not such an approach would be effective. But it is possible that this framing could cast the long-standing problem of content limits in Iran in a new light.

A further discussion of the issue of net neutrality in Iran can be found in Small Media’s Filterwatch podcast.

This blog gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.