Future Tense

Iran Aims to End Online Freedoms “for Good”

Two people hold smartphones in their hands.
People in the Iranian capital Tehran on Nov. 23, 2019. Atta Kenare/Getty Images

On July 31, 19 days into a strike, workers from the Haft Tappe sugarcane processing plant in southwest Iran took to the streets. The focus of their strike was delayed wages and poor working conditions. But they were also protesting against the Islamic Republic’s latest effort for curtailing online freedoms. “They fear the internet [since] they back the corrupt,” marching workers chanted in Khuzestan Province, southwest Iran.

The workers were reacting to the Iranian parliament’s decision to fast-track the introduction of a bill dubbed Cyberspace Users Rights Protection and Regulation of Key Online Services, widely referred to as the Protection Bill. (It’s available here in Persian.) If implemented, the bill—which has been in the making since 2018—is expected to curb access to the internet, invade users’ privacy, infringe net neutrality, and suppress freedom of speech in Iran. For years, Iran has been seen as constantly trying to emulate the more extreme censorship regimes of Russia and China. This bill would help the Islamic Republic set a new standard for other authoritarian states to follow.

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Three days before the Haft Tappe demonstration, the Iranian members of parliament voted 121 to 74 in favor of invoking Article 85 of the Islamic Republic constitution to review and experimentally implement the bill. First, a select few MPs will review the legislation for two months behind closed doors, then they will send it to the Guardian Council—Iran’s constitutional watchdog—to be ratified. If it gets the greenlight from the Guardian Council, it will be “experimentally” enforced for up to five years, and later can be permanently ratified into law.

The internet is already heavily censored in Iran, which has about 57.4 million internet users in a total population of about 82 million. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been banned in Iran since 2009. Telegram, which has 49 million users in Iran, has been banned since 2018. Furthermore, over the past few months, the state has used throttling to disrupt access to WhatsApp, Instagram, and Clubhouse. WhatsApp and Instagram are respectively used by 50 million and 47 million people in Iran.

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The new legislation is expected to further tighten the net by imposing a blanket ban against all international services. International online services providers—from Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook to smaller ones—will have to agree to operate within the laws and regulations of the Islamic Republic, and collaborate with the state in surveillance and censorship operations. The language of the bill is vague but it can also require tech companies to install an official representative inside the country. This would provide the Islamic Republic with an additional leverage, considering the state’s history of taking foreign and dual nationals hostage to pressure Western nations.

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The Islamic Republic appears to be following the example of other authoritarian states. In 2021, Russia’s Duma imposed similar conditions on international tech firms, and the Indian government has tried to curtail online freedoms by strong-arming international social media platforms.

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If companies fail to comply with the demands, access to their services would either be throttled or blocked.

But because Iran is subject to both U.S. and international sanctions, tech companies, especially American firms, are legally barred from conceding to the demands. Even Gmail and WhatsApp would likely be blocked going forward.

The bill would also criminalize production and distribution of censorship circumvention tools like virtual private networks, punishable with up to two years in jail. Iranians heavily rely on such tools to access blocked platforms.

It would also introduce a multitiered system that would rank citizens based on their age and profession and provide them with different levels of access to the internet. The Islamic Republic has already tried introducing such a system. For instance, some Iran-based journalists who are seen as friendly toward the establishment have been provided with “unfiltered” internet and now frequent platforms like Twitter to echo the state’s public messaging. Some university professors have also been provided with access to banned platforms like YouTube “for research purposes.” The bill would enshrine the system into law and expand it to all citizens.

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In addition to being an outright breach of net neutrality, the move would be tantamount to establishment of a cyber caste system, exacerbating the already gaping inequalities in Iran and making access to the internet a privilege for the darlings of the dictator.

The parliament has also aimed to kill online anonymity in the bill, requiring all service providers to implement a “real name” policy—forcing users to sign up with their legal identity. In oppressive environments like Iran, civil society, activists, journalists and marginalized groups heavily rely on online anonymity to evade state persecution. The policy would also be an invasion of all users’ privacy.

While Iran holds elections and has a civilian government, the country’s de facto dictator, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say over all matters, from international relations to cyber policies. If enacted, the legislation would further tighten the grip of the Supreme Leader on Iranian cyberspace and limit the civilian government’s role in Iran’s cyber policy arena. It would transfer control of Iran’s key communication infrastructure—international gateways that connect Iran to the World Wide Web—from the government to an ad hoc agency dominated by the armed forces and security agencies, which in turn are controlled by the Supreme Leader.

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It would also put another Supreme Leader-controlled entity, the Supreme Regulatory Commission, in charge of regulating and “purifying” Iran’s cyberspace—nom de guerre of censorship. Among other things, the commission would also set a gradually decreasing cap for the bandwidth international services can use, throttling access to them until they are rendered useless. The transfer of power to opaque agencies that are only accountable to the Supreme Leader would make imposition of censorship policies and internet shutdowns easier for the Islamic Republic.

In Iran’s divided society, where people seldom see eye to eye on any topic, the parliament’s bill has managed to elicit a unified response: fear and rage.

The unified response did not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Iran’s recent history. After all, Iranians suffered a weeks-long nationwide internet shutdown in 2019, and have been struggling with an overbearing censorship regime for years. More than 930,000 people have signed a petition to stop the bill from passing. Iranian social media has also been abuzz with protest against it with hashtags like #No_to_the_protection_bill in Persian trending since July 28.

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But the Islamic Republic would have none of this. In an open letter published on July 30, top Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps general Mohammad Reza Naqdi has called on MPs to “stay steadfast and end the foreigners’ rule over Iran’s cyberspace for good.”

And in all likelihood, that will happen. The bill is expected to sail through the remaining hurdles.

The free expression organization Article 19 has described the bill as a “full-on attack” on people’s rights to freedom of expression, access to information and privacy that would place Iranians in an “information blackhole” where accessing even basic services such as email and messaging tools will not be possible.

To many Iranians, it will be another episode of a decades-long nightmare.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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