Since the inception of the world wide web, the internet became a necessity to access and connect to it. Governments everywhere began developing and providing internet services. Today, in Iran, the opposite is happening. The Iranian regime is looking for a plan that not only does not develop its internet services but also separates its users from the world so that everyone operates on the national internet system – one that is void of international interactions.
Indeed, this proposal is not new or strange for Iran. During the November 2019 protest, it cut off the internet in the country for a few days so the voices of Iranian users, and videos and photos of the protest, would not be shared.
A Bill for Restrictions
“The Cyberspace Users Rights Protection Bill,” known euphemistically in Iran as the “Protection Bill,” is a draft bill that the parliament intends to pass with the support of the government. The bill will cut Iranian users off from the world wide web and monitor their activities by identifying them.
In the initial draft of the bill, users would be disconnected from global platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Gmail. Even search engines such as Google Chrome and Yahoo would be banned, forcing users to switch to internal platforms.
The proposed bill violates the rights to freedom of expression online and the privacy of internet users.
The proposed bill violates the rights to freedom of expression online and the privacy of internet users. It would also put Iran’s internet infrastructure, and most importantly, its internet gateways, in the hands of the armed forces and security agencies.
“The bill, if implemented in its current form, will potentially lead to a blanket ban against all international online services, effectively placing the people of Iran in an information black hole where accessing even basic services such as email and messaging tools will not be possible,” said Saloua Ghazouani, director of ARTICLE 19 Middle East and North Africa Program.
After several riots and unrest in Iran, and Iranian internauts broadcasting police attacks and violence on the internet, officials decided to cut access to the internet and social media platforms by drafting the Protection Bill.
The legislation has been opposed by civil society, users, and even some members of parliament, forcing the draft to be edited three times so far. It is now under consideration by a special parliamentary committee and has not yet been approved.
The government wants to create a domestic network in the country where users can connect but the government can monitor all content exchanged on its platform. Users on the network dubbed the “National Internet” can use internal services, but they will not enjoy any privacy. The key issue here is the network’s access to the global internet. Anything that enters such a network from outside the borders must be identified and approved by the authorities.
Included in this bill, virtual networks such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and others must register their companies in Iran, accept all provisions of the bill, and designate a representative. They must also provide the identity and history of their users’ activities whenever the Iranian government requests it.
Virtual networks must provide the identity and history of their users’ activities whenever the Iranian government requests it.
If the platforms refuse to follow these instructions, they will no longer be allowed to operate. And given the severe US sanctions on Iran, the regime’s unreasonable demands, and violation of users’ rights, these platforms are unlikely to go along. User authentication, eavesdropping, criminalization of production, sale, and distribution of censorship circumvention tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs), and proxy services are other provisions specifically addressed in the Protection Bill.
Motives Behind the Legislation
Since the revolution, the Iranian regime has demonstrated its strong desire for social and cultural control. With the spread of the internet, the virtual experience of the Iranian people became a growing concern. The fear of dissent continued to expand after numerous protests in 2009, 2017-2018, and 2018.
According to Freedom House statistics in 2021, Iran ranks 16th out of 100 as a non-free country for internet access. “The goal of those seeking the passage of the bill is to control their political and factional opponents,” Ahmad Mazeni, chairman of the former parliament’s cultural committee said.
Furthermore, economic considerations underlie the bill’s approval and implementation. According to Articles 12 and 13 of the draft bill, the government would reserve 20 percent of the fines imposed on violators of the law and the sale of international bandwidth in a special fund. The proceeds will then be used for content production and the development of new technologies related to national network services.
This clause in the legislation will undoubtedly lead to widespread corruption and the transfer of large sums of money to selected state-owned companies or government-affiliated individuals seeking to take advantage of it by registering IT companies.
The dominance of the armed forces over the country’s internet is another reason for the promotion of the Protection Bill. In recent decades, the Iranian military has gained significant control over most of the country’s social, cultural, technological, and construction sectors. And the regime intends to extend military power to the country’s cyberspace.
Indeed, according to Article 10 of the draft, the armed forces will implement the resolutions of the “Specialized Committee” for the management of international bandwidth and the entry of information into the National Internet.
The bill was based on censorship in China.
The control of government agencies over the internet is similar to plans implemented in China and Russia. Reporters Without Borders tweeted that the bill was based on censorship in China. Ali Yazdikhah, a hardline lawmaker and the deputy chairman of the committee reviewing the Protection Bill, referred to China’s experience in this field and the need to use and duplicate its knowledge in Iran.
The Effects of the Bill on Iranian Society
The passage and implementation of the bill will undoubtedly lead to additional popular distrust of the regime and forge a greater divide with the regime. Mohammad Khatami, former president of Iran, said the passage of the bill will only bring more popular dissatisfaction and financial hardship.
For this reason, the Islamic Parliament Research Center, a research institute in the Iranian parliament, has objected to this draft several times so far. In a letter to members of parliament, its chairman described it as “deepening the gap between the people and the government” and “encouraging the emigration of elites.”
User authentication, mentioned in Article 15 of the Protection Bill, not only requires users to enter their information into the system when logging, but it also classifies them. The first draft declared that users had to be categorized and their level of internet access determined by their individual job positions. In other words, the level of access to the web and its content by an unskilled worker will be different than that of a doctor.
Eavesdropping, also mentioned in Article 11 of the bill, is remarkable in its intrusiveness and privacy violations. Law enforcement agencies, which include the country’s armed forces, can monitor the activities of users and have access to their conversations, comments, posts, and site visits under the supervision of a committee under the responsibility of the judiciary.
Thousands of small and home-based online businesses currently active on Instagram will be seriously harmed.
In addition, with the bill’s implementation, thousands of small and home-based online businesses that are currently active on Instagram will be seriously harmed. It seems very unlikely that local services with the same quality and high global traffic as Instagram will be created.
“[The Protection Bill] does not provide any solutions for the future careers of hundreds of thousands of small and home-based Internet businesses,” Afshin Kalami, head of the New Business Commission of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce, said.
Critics of the bill believe that if it passes, it will also not take long for it to fail. Previously, similar legislations such as the one criminalizing the purchase and use of video and satellite was approved, but people paid little mind to them.
About 1.1 million protesters have signed a letter that was sent to the Speaker of Parliament, expressing their opposition to the pending Protection Bill. And Iranian civil society widely tweeted the hashtag “Iran is not North Korea” to protest the legislation. Currently, Iranians are left sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting to find out whether their online experience will soon cease to exist.