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  • Stéffie Banatvala

Internet censorship in Iran: Is the Protection of User’s bill fertile grounds for revolution?

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

In the summer, the Iranian government announced plans to further restrict internet and social media in Iran through the Protection of User’s bill. Reduced bandwidth has also been reported over the last month. For some people, the current bill is beginning to turn fear into outrage, with protests already occurring. But others are still reluctant to talk about politics, especially online given the security climate.

Here’s the run down on the bill, its effects and opposition…

The Bill

This new bill is officially called the Cyberspace Users Rights Protection and Regulation of Key Online Services, but is widely referred to as the Protection of User’s bill.

It aims to filter external networks and social media so that the Iranian security can access alternative services on an internal server. This allows for development of internal internet infrastructure. So the internal server would allow for domestic users to connect but content would be monitored.

On the other hand, foreign companies, such as Whatsapp and Instagram, would need a domestic licence to avoid being censored. The timeframe to obtain the licence is not yet defined.

Content from outside the domestic network would be “refined” with different levels of access according to user’s occupation. For example, a doctor would have different access to international internet to a teacher.

Iranian lawmakers allowed a Joint Specialised Commission to approve the plan under Article 85 of the Constitution . 121 deputies voted for the plan, 74 voted against and 9 abstained in a closed session on 28th July 2021.

It will be implemented on trial if the Guardian council approve it, bypassing the parliament open court. This has sparked fear amongst internet users in Iran.

Meanwhile, users are reporting decreased bandwidth capacity – meaning slower speeds and reduced access to global networks. This coincides with unofficial reports that internet bandwidth development will be stopped.

How will it affect Iranian citizens?

If it goes through, the bill will affect people’s sense of security, freedom of speech, trust in government, and employment opportunities.

An especially affected demographic would be entrepreneurs and internet-based start-ups.

Iranian entrepreneur Hossein Adhmadi* said that, “I am very worried that the internet is going to be down. Especially Instagram. […] It is a problem for me, because my job is through social media. I have two virtual stores that sell products through Instagram.”

Elsewhere, Iranian artist Farah Mohammadi said that “It’s like you want to scream, but you can’t”. Especially as, “the people from another country can’t see the reality about people from my country”.

There is also a reluctance to talk about political issues. Iranian student, Afshin Sadeghi emphasises that “I can’t say much about myself and politics. I say to myself that I hope one day we will all find our way to freedom and life in the future”.

Other Iranian citizens felt more resistant. Farzin Zare said “Iran is becoming North Korea, and the new generation needs a spark for a revolution, and this global internet outage will be a spark for a revolution from the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Republic of Iran”. Sadeghi also commented that there is “the possibility for all Iranians to take to the streets. And there will be a very strong protest”.

Importantly, the people I have spoken to want to be heard. Sadeghi said, “I hope you have understood, and we hope that you will hear the voice of our Iranian people and make it heard”.

Opposition and response

The initial announcement of the plan was criticised by select conservatives and Hezbollah figures.

In August, the Guardian Council’s spokesman responded that they “attach great importance to the rule of law and people’s rights”.

Guardian Council spokesman Hadi Tahan-Nazaf then spoke with social media activists and journalists on Wednesday 15th September. The activists urged the vetting body to work closely with them. It was reported by the Guardian Council to be “friendly”. But no direct responses to their queries have been accessibly published.

Since then, an open letter of opposition was sent to the speaker of parliament, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. On Monday 11th October, it was announced that the letter contained over 1 million signatures, including business owners. Protesters are criticising the plan for being dangerous, as well as damaging to cyberspace access.

Currently in response, the Qalibaf and MPs continue to claim that the plan will not censor internet services. They claim it will support domestic communication, businesses and domestic banking services. However fiscal services to foreign cyberspace services, including social media, would be banned. This could lead to control of culture, information and freedom of expression.

*All citizens’ names have been changed for anonymity.

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