Iran Legislates ‘Protection Bill’ To End Online Freedom

Hardline lawmakers at Iran’s Parliament discussed a bill on Wednesday on protecting cyberspace users to delegate a vote to the cultural committee without being debated on the parliament’s floor. The new bill is expected to control and censor the internet and communication. It is feared that it will restrict information and online freedom of expression in Iran.

Over 900,000 Iranians have signed a petition opposing the new bill, demanding the scrapping of the legislation. In addition, hashtags criticizing the bill make it to Twitter trends.

Since the early 2000s, Iran has been blocking websites and social media apps for religious and political reasons. Iranian authorities justify such blockings, under the Islamic Penal Code, to prevent the spreading of propaganda against the system, insulting Islamic sanctities, and insulting the Supreme Leader. These provisions are frequently used to stifle all dissenting voices.

According to Article 85 of the Iranian constitution, if the new bill is approved, it would be experimentally implemented for a period of three to five years or even longer, decided by the parliament.

However, Article 19 of the Iranian constitution, urges Iran’s parliamentarians to withdraw the bill in order to guarantee meaningful, open, and secure access to the internet and to protect the internet privacy of users.

“Using the term ‘Protection’ to name this legislation will not detract from the fact that Iran’s Parliamentarians are launching a full-on attack on people’s rights to freedom of expression, access to information, and privacy,” said SalouaGhazouani, Director of ARTICLE 19 the Middle East and North Africa Programme.

She added, “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.”

The director of the National Cyberspace Center of Iran, Abolhassan Firoozabadi, said last year that he has been looking up to China as a role model. This Asian country has been criticized by Human Rights organizations for its internet restriction measures.

Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, stated that he supports what is called a layered internet access system. Under this system, there is a variety of criteria, including profession, that would determine the level of internet access to users.

Nevertheless, Iranian Minister of Information and Communication Technology, Mohamed Javad Azari Jahromi as well as Former President Hassan Rouhani, who actively uses Instagram, denounced the new bill.

According to the bill, it requires international companies to appoint Iranian representatives to comply with Iranian laws and cooperate with the Iranian government in surveilling users and censoring online spaces.

However, in practice, it is unexpected that such demands are going to be met. Most of the international companies that provide online services are either US companies or companies that have ties with the US. Because of the US sanctions imposed on the Iranian regime, they would prevent such demand from taking place.

Iran has one of the most restricted internet access in the world. It has no direct access to social media services like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, and others. Instagram and Pinterest are from the few online platforms that are allowed in Iran.

However, it is not impossible for Iranians to manipulate and be tech-savvy. Despite the fact that so many social media apps and websites are banned in Iran, they still can have indirect access through using Virtual Private Networks (VPN) that bypass the imposed restrictions.

According to the government-affiliated Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA)’s latest survey, WhatsApp is the most used social network with 71 percent of participants using it despite its ban. Instagram and Telegram are the second most popular apps.

Thus, if enacted, the bill would criminalize using VPN services as well as forbidding government officials from having social media accounts that are not registered in the country.

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