For approximately 12 hours, Instagram became the latest apparent victim of Iran‘s Internet censorship system commonly known as the “Filternet.” The blocking of Instagram was initially reported by Iranian netizens early Sunday, and later confirmed by independent researchers.
Instagram appeared to be the latest casualty of Iran’s most recent online clampdown — despite promises of more Internet freedom by the new government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Then just a few hours later, the photo-sharing network was unblocked, and Iranian officials denied any wrongdoing.
Everything started around 1 a.m, Iranian time, on Sunday morning (5 p.m ET on Saturday). Several Iranians on Twitter (who were using a proxy since the microblogging network is blocked there) started reporting issues with accessing Instagram, both on their computers and cellphones.
Four hours later, the reports were confirmed by Collin Anderson, an independent technology researcher who focuses on Iran. After running tests on computers inside of Iran, to which he has remote access, Anderson reported that Instagram was inaccessible across multiple Iranian Internet Service Providers. BlockedinIran.com, a censorship-monitoring site, also reported Instagram as censored.
Although Instagram wasn’t blocked on a few ISPs, Anderson told Mashable that this was probably due to a slow rollout, and it was “really unlikely” the block was due to a technical issue.
“I’m surprised it lasted this long,” Anderson told Mashable after the test. “Instagram was probably the largest unfiltered social media platform [in Iran]. But the security state has really ramped up its propaganda about social networks.”
Roughly 12 hours later after the block, Instagram was unblocked, and the Iranian government denied any censorship attempts.
Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, head of the Iranian Committee for Determining Criminal Web Content —essentially the government agency in charge of Internet censorship — told Nasim Online that the Iranian government had not blocked Instagram, but just a “page” or pages (according to other sources) of “criminal content.”
The Telecommunications Infrastructure Company, Iran’s state-run telecom company that controls the country’s Internet infrastructure, also claimed that the temporary block was unintentional.
“Instagram, which is a website to share images, is not blocked,” TIC wrote in a statement.
However, Anderson and other activists aren’t buying their explanation.
“It wasn’t a mistake, something happened,” Anderson said, explaining that the issue was too narrowly targeted to be an involuntary glitch. “A site has to be put on the list to be blocked, and it definitely was blocked.”
Amin Sabeti, an Iranian researcher in London who focuses on media and Internet freedom, said the government might have tried to block it for a few hours to test the waters, and see how citizens would react.
“I’m sure for one thing that it was not simple incident,” he told Mashable via Skype. “I’m sure all people who have responsibility for the filtering know it … I believe they tried to block it permanently.”
For now, details surrounding the block are unclear, but since other North American social networks are blocked, critics of Rouhani’s government say it makes sense that the regime would also want to block Instagram. Earlier this week, the Iranian government blocked Chinese mobile chat app WeChat, as well as Cyptocat, a secure, encrypted online chat service in late November.
Earlier this month, the Iranian government clampdown on Internet freedom crossed over to the real world when the Revolutionary Guard arrested 16 cyber activists and tech bloggers.
In Instagram’s case, Anderson speculates that the app’s new private-messaging feature is a concern for the regime. Perhaps, he said, Instagram was just becoming too popular.
“That’s a rule,” Mahdi Taghizadeh, a developer living in Iran, jokingly toldMashable via Skype. “Every popular social network should be blocked in Iran!”