In the continuing battle over Internet regulation in Iran, one of Iran's highest religious clerics has ruled that access to high speed internet is "against moral standards," and urged the judiciary "not to remain indifferent on this vital issue."
"All third generation [3G] and high-speed internet services, prior to realization of the required conditions for the National Information Network [Iran's government-controlled and censored Internet which is under development], is against Sharia [and] against moral and human standards," Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi wrote on Aug. 25 in response to question posted on his website, The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) reported Thursday.
The Iranian administration is under no legal obligation to enforce Shirazi's ruling.
The battle over Internet censorship in Iran has pitted President Hassan Rouhani — a pragmatic reformer who campaigned in 2013 in support of some internet liberalization — against hardline conservatives — who oppose Rouhani's rhetoric of reform and hold considerable power in the judicial and security sectors.
Activists have long accused Iranian authorities of slowing the speed of the Internet (as well as radio and television broadcasts) in order to undermine access, especially during times of protest. Iran began efforts to create a National Information Network under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. If implemented, the service would make it even easier for the government to censor the internet in Iran.
During the 2013 presidential campaign, Rouhani appeared to argue for a change. "We are in a situation where our researchers and students wish to use the Internet. Our people deserve better than to wait for information on the Internet," ICHRI reported.
About 42 million Iranians, or 55% of the population, use the Internet, according to ICHRI. The Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC) censors many websites, including social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Rouhani heads the SCC, though the council's many hardliners outnumber moderates, according to the Center for Internet and Society.
Millions of Iranians nonetheless use services like VPNs to bypass the blocks; Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif maintain popular Twitter accounts, though only Zarif has been verified. There is also an unofficial Twitter account that claims to be associated with Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Imam Khomeini, despite the clerics stated opposition to liberalizing Internet censorship.
Shirazi's statements follow months of apparent infighting over Internet and social media censorship between reformers and hardliners in Iran. On July 24, Iranian officials arrested three American journalists, including the Washington Post's Tehran correspondent, without charge and later accused them of spying. Rouhani has not publicly spoken out against the arrests. In another widely publicized incident in May, Iran's Committee for Determining Criminal Web Content passed a ban on WhatsApp, a free messaging service, which the Rouhani-appointed Minister of Communications then rejected.