Increased News and Social Media Accessibility Following Iran’s Election

Herdict data from Iran indicates increasing accessibility of news and social media websites following the country’s June 15 election. Iran was public about its attempts to limit coverage of the election and limit Internet speeds in the period of time leading up to election day. Examination of Herdict data offers some insight into the kinds of sites that were restricted prior to the election, and the easing of those restrictions in the weeks that followed.

Once challenge in interpreting Herdict data is that care must be used in separating changes in reporting behaviors (more reports) from changes in access (more inaccessible or accessible reports).  In many cases making that distinction is impossible.  However,  on June 10, June 16, and June 25, Herdict received a comparable amount of accessible reports on each day, enabling us to engaged in more detailed comparisons. Analysis of data from these three comparable days (one prior to the election and two after) shows an increase in the number of accessible reports for Iranian and global news sites as well as social media websites and a decrease in inaccessible reports for global news and social media sites.

Accessible reports for Iranian news websites almost quadrupled between June 10 and June 25. Herdict collected reports for Farsi News, Gooya News, Iran News Network, Iranian Labour News Agency, Islamic Republic News Agency, Mashregh News, Mehr News, and Meyar News. The majority of inaccessible reports on June 16 came from Meyar News (9 reports).

Iranian News Website Reports

     Accessible

     Inaccessible

June 10

          14

            3

June 16

          44

           16

June 25

          53

            3

Accessible reports for global news websites also increased after the election, and inaccessible reports decreased. Herdict collected reports for BBC and BBC Persian, CNN, Global Voices, and the Voice of America.

Global News Websites

     Accessible

     Inaccessible

June 10

          3

            15

June 16

          4

             5

June 25

          9

             4

Social media sites showed a similar increase in accessible reports and a decrease in inaccessible reports following the election. The Iranian social networking site Cloob.com was reported inaccessible on June 10 and accessible on June 16. Interestingly, various Twitter pages (Twitter Blog, Twitter for Business, Twitter for Developers, Twitter Media, Twitter for Mobile, Twitter Help Center, and Twitter Status, and the homepage) were reported accessible from Iran, despite the country’s ban of the site. Most inaccessible reports following the election came from Facebook. Herdict also collected reports for LinkedIn, Reddit, and YouTube.

Social Media Website Reports

     Accessible

     Inaccessible

June 10

          8

            35

June 16

          9

            16

June 25

         18

             3

Since winning the vote President-elect Hassan Rouhani has advocated for loosening Iran’s control over the Internet, calling government filtering during the country’s 2009 election ineffective.

Data Shows Internet Inaccessibility During Iranian Election

In the lead up to the presidential elections, Iranians grappled with a more restricted Internet. We know the government slowed Internet speeds (again) in the days before the country’s June 15 elections because it acknowledged as much. But research by ASL 19 and Herdict indicates the problems this month were far more extensive than simply slow connections.

Herdict and ASL 19, an anti-censorship advocacy organization, recently partnered to monitor Iranian censorship. Between June 1 and July 1, Herdict received 3,533 reports from Iran. Additionally, ASL 19 surveyed 555 Iranian Internet users about site accessibility in the country beginning on June 11. The survey data shows Iranians experienced extremely poor access to the Internet and various web services before the election, with a spike in inaccessibility on election day. ASL 19 posted summaries of each day’s findings on its blog.

Comparing Herdict data with ASL 19’s data allows us to see a clearer picture of the scope of the disruption to and restrictions on Internet freedom in Iran. Mohammad Hassan Nami, Iran’s minister of communications and information technology, told Tasnim News Agency that the restrictions were part of “security measures taken to preserve calm in the country during the election period,” according to Radio Free Europe. However, our data shows a far broader set of restrictions on Internet usage.

 .ir versus non-.ir Websites

Unsurprisingly, Iranians reported greater difficulty with foreign sites than local ones.  Between June 1 and July 1, Herdict received 2,283 accessible reports and 1,250 inaccessible reports from Iran, which is 35 percent inaccessible. Only 73 of the inaccessible reports pertained to websites using the Iranian top-level domain .ir; the remaining 1,177 inaccessible reports came from non-.ir websites (e.g., facebook.comyoutube.com, etc.). The percentage of non-.ir websites reported as being inaccessible decreased just prior to the election and has remained lower than pre-election levels. Between June 1 and June 10, 47 percent of non-.ir website reports were inaccessible. Between June 11 and June 15, the rate decreased to 39 percent. After the election, between June 16 and July 1, 40 percent of reports on non-.ir sites were inaccessible.

Herdict Inaccessibility Reports for non-.ir Sites

    June 1-June 10

     June 11-June 15

      June 16-July 1

non-.ir sites

    47 percent

     39 percent

      40 percent

ASL 19 Survey Data on Accessibility of .ir and non-.ir Websites Between June 11-July 1

   Normal access

   Limited Access

   No Access

.ir sites

   22 percent

   66 percent

   3 percent

non-.ir sites

   6 percent

   87 percent

   4 percent

ASL 19 survey data also shows users experiencing more difficulty with non-.ir websites compared to .ir websites. Between June 11 and July 1, 22 percent of users reported normal access to .ir websites, compared to six percent who reported normal access to non-.ir websites. Herdict data from the same time period shows 90 percent of .ir site reports labeled accessible, compared to 60 percent of non-.ir site reports. Both Herdict and ASL 19 data show that far more users reported at least some problem accessing non-.ir sites compared to .ir sites.

It is useful to look at some specific, popular sites that both Herdict and ASL 19 tracked during the pre- and post-election period. Below we provide some details about Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube’s accessibility in Iran.

Facebook

249 Herdict reports from Iran were about Facebook. Of those, 49 percent reported the site inaccessible and 51 percent accessible. ASL 19’s survey data showed 18 percent had no access to the site, 70 percent experienced some difficulties accessing the site, and 7 percent had normal access.

Twitter

41 Herdict reports were for Twitter, and 88 percent recorded inaccessibility. This is comparable with ASL 19 survey data, in which only 3 percent of users reported normal access to the site. Nearly all other respondents who used Twitter reported either difficulty accessing the site or no access at all.

YouTube

69 Herdict reports were for YouTube. Of those, 61 percent reported the site inaccessible and 39 percent accessible.

Herdict Accessibility Reports Between June 1 and July 1

Inaccessible

       Accessible

Facebook

49 percent

       51 percent

Twitter

88 percent

       12 percent

YouTube

61 percent

       39 percent

ASL 19 Survey Data on Website Accessibility Between June 11 and July 1

     No access

     Limited Access

     Normal Access

Facebook

     18 percent

     70 percent

     7 percent

Twitter

     14 percent

     39 percent

     3 percent

YouTube and other Video-Sharing Sites

     29 percent

     55 percent

     4 percent

Ultimately, both datasets appear to say a very similar thing: very few people in Iran had normal, unfettered access to these popular sites.  Where there are differences, it is likely a result of the different scales that Herdict and ASL 19 used.  Herdict uses a binary accessible or inaccessible measure, whereas ASL 19 asked people to rate the quality of their access ranging from no access to normal access.  For these sites, that difference this can lead to somewhat divergent numbers.  If someone in Iran tries to access YouTube and service is so slow that it makes watching videos impossible, they might report that as inaccessible on Herdict but limited access for ASL 19’s survey.

Herdict also received inaccessibility reports for the BBC and BBC Persian, CNN, Reddit, Meyar News, Google, Amnesty International, and Herdict partner Citizen Lab.

Although Iran relied heavily on Internet filtering heading into this election, there may be some good news on the horizon.  Shortly after his election, President-elect Hassan Rouhani acknowledged that Internet filtering doesn’t work and called social networking sites, “a welcome phenomenon.” Whether that means fewer inaccessibility reports will flow from Iran remains to be seen.

Tightening Control: Four Scary Things Happening to the Russian Internet

A couple of weeks ago a Russian Member of Parliament Sergei Zheleznyak used the NSA revelations as an opportunity to call for Russia to reclaim “digital sovereignty” and create what he referred to as a national server for the Russian internet. The Deputy Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament proposed a system which would require foreign websites to register with the Kremlin and adhere to Russian laws in order to operate within the country.

This proposal is just the latest in a series of controversial pieces of internet legislation the Duma has passed in the last year that requires special behavior from foreign websites. The most recent was a stringent anti-piracy bill nicknamed “The Russian SOPA.”

SOPA didn’t die, it just moved to Russia
Although informally called the Russian SOPA, it’s actually called Amendments to the Russian Federation’s Laws Protecting Intellectual Property Rights on Information-Telecommunications Networks. Despite an outcry from Google and Yandex, Russia’s largest search engine – the Duma fast-tracked this stringent anti-piracy legislation through the Duma last month.

Set to go into effect August 1, the bill imposes harsh penalties for copyright violations. With this bill, copyright holders are invited to go to the Moscow City Court with proof that their copyright has been violated somewhere online, along with proof they own the copyright. After alerting the court, the copyright holder has up to fifteen days to file a formal complaint. If the court decides during that time that copyright has been violated, they can (even without the formal complaint) instruct the service provider to remove the content. The service provider must then contact the content host to have them initiate a content takedown. If the content isn’t removed within 72 hours of the request from the court, the service provider can be forced to take down the entire IP address and domain.

How might this play out, come August? For example – if there is copyrighted material somewhere on a WordPress blog and it is not removed within 72 hours, all WordPress blogs hosted on the same IP address or domain might be blocked, even if they are unrelated . In addition, copyright holders are not required to present the URL where the infringed material can be found, leaving site owners to dig through their own data to track it down and remove it.

While IP blocking is often regarded as inefficient and over-reaching, this isn’t the first time the Russian government has passed legislation including IP-wide blocking.

The Blacklist Law
Called the Common Register of Domain Names, Internet Website Page Locators, and Network Addresses that Allow Identifying Internet Websites Which Contain Information that is Prohibited for Distribution in the Russian Federation, the “Russian Internet Blacklist” allows the government to restrict access to websites with objectionable content.

Rushed through the Duma last summer despite outcry from internet and civil society groups, the stringent bill requires websites websites containing child pornography, instructions on drug production or suicide advocacy to be blocked. Opponents of the bill criticize the language as vague and over-arching, prompting worries that the law may be applied to curtail free speech and anti-government sentiment online.

When users find a site that contains one of those three topics, they may submit the URL to a registry. That site is then sent to the Roskomnadzor, Russia’s main governmental media watchdog. If found to fall under one of those three categories, the Roskomnadzor then notifies the ISP, who contacts the site owner. If the objectionable content is not removed within 24 hours, the provider must block the website’s IP address and domain name.

Whitelist
Conversely, one region in Russia has taken the blacklist one step further by allowing users in the Kostroma region to only access a “whitelist” of pre-approved sites vetted by the Russian Safe Internet League, a council sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church. Any user wanting to venture beyond a pre-approved list of 500,000 websites needs to expressly fill out a form.

Anti-gay propaganda bill
The bill prohibits distribution of information on “non-traditional sexual relations” to minors over the Internet and traditional media. Media outlets that violate the law can be fined in upwards of $30,000 and be suspended for up to 90 days, reports GlobalPost. The bill passed both houses of parliament unanimously with one abstention, and is expected to be signed into law. Protests outside the Kremlin against the bill sparked violence between gay rights activists and counter-protestors in support of the bill.

With Russia’s new restrictions on what is deemed acceptable content, and a prominent Member of Parliament calling on foreign web services to register in order to operate in the country, are we seeing a galvanization of a balkanized internet, or the solidification of a digital iron curtain? What do you think of the recent developments in the country? Let us know in the comments.

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