In Iran, internet speeds have dropped dramatically over the past month, while access to Virtual Proxy Networks (VPNs) and open social networks including Twitter and Telegram has become more difficult – prompting criticism and protest campaigns, shared extensively on social media.
It follows alarm over the "User Protection Bill", due to be tabled before Iranian parliament in March 2022. Proponents of the bill argue that, as the name suggests, the bill will protect the rights of Iran’s internet users. But digital rights and tech experts have warned that, if passed, the law will put the internet almost exclusively in the hands of Iranian authorities, block people’s access to international websites, and is a direct threat to citizens’ privacy and right to freedom of expression.
So has what many Iranians have feared might happen for years begun in earnest? Is the collapse and total disconnection of the internet underway? What amendments have been added to the so-called "User Protection Bill"? Given that this bill has not yet been approved by parliament, why has there already been such a drastic decrease in speed, even when people deploy software designed to tackle blocks and filtering? What’s behind the rising costs of accessing the global internet as opposed to the “national” one? Is Iran actually capable of completely shutting down Iranians’ access to the global internet? Won’t they still be able to bypass filtering?
IranWire’s sister website Journalism Is Not A Crime talked to digital security expert Amir Rashidi about the developments and recent threats to internet access. Unless citizens and civil society launch a widespread and cohesive protest against the slowdown and high cost of the internet, he says, there is a good chance that Iranians will soon be living a much more isolated life, cut off from international communications and forced to source information solely from the nationally-run system.
The Damage on the Way
Rashidi says it’s difficult to know just how extensive the damage will be if the bill is passed into law, not least because there have been a variety of theories put forth about how it will be implemented.
"What we know for certain is that the Iranian government and the ruling powers are determined to extend restrictions on internet users’ access to the free internet, and a complete shutdown of the global internet in the coming months is not far-fetched," Rashidi said. "I consider the recent report by the Parliamentary Research Center to be the most honest analysis by any government institution because anybody with any sort of awareness will understand that its implementation will have detrimental effects on citizens' privacy, on internet businesses and on the principle of defending freedom of expression. Reza Taghipour Anvari and his allies, who belong to the extremist Stability [Payedari] Front faction, are doing their best to bring in this bill as soon as possible, and with more repressive components, because they want totalitarianism. Citizens and civil society must not remain silent about this coup against the internet."
On December 22, 2021, the Iranian Parliamentary Research Center published an investigative study into the decrease in social capital, instability in the economy and the regulations guiding it, the insecure investment environment, excessive government intervention into various aspects of people's lives, and the increasing numbers of qualified people emigrating to other countries. The center's report also looks at the "User Protection Bill", highlighting a lack of transparency in the draft law’s provisions and the details of how it will be implemented.
Unsurprisingly, the report came under fire from some supporters of the project. Rashidi highlighted one of them, Reza Taghipour Anvari, a member of parliament, chairman of the Joint Committee for the Protection of Online Users' Rights, and former Minister of Communications and Technology in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration. He referred to the study as a "political stunt."
A Blatant Disregard for Rights — and Business
Amir Rashidi told Journalism is Not a Crime that the government would not find it difficult to completely cut its people off from the internet. "Right now, 70 percent of Iran's internet traffic is domestic, and the technical infrastructure can be geared up to cut off the remaining 30 percent. On the other hand, the government has increased the cost of using the open internet, a step intended to get people accustomed to using the national one and accept the silent implementation of the bill. For many of Iran’s decision-makers, it doesn't matter if freedom of expression is suppressed or online businesses are harmed, and that is scary. Only protest from a large section of society can stop or delay the final implementation of the bill. As long as the global internet is connected, citizens can bypass blocks, but if they cut off the internet altogether, there is currently no technology in place to bring in the free internet outside Iran to the country."
Various parliamentarians have taken steps to bring in further worrying changes to the bill ahead of the vote in March. The Joint Committee on the Protection Bill met on December 27, and introduced what was essentially a new version of the legislation: the Cyberspace Services Regulatory System.
According to this new version, Iran’s armed forces will be given overall responsibility to implement the directives issued by the Working Group on the Management of Safe Border Crossing, establishing necessary coordination between the relevant agencies. This means the Ministry of Communications and Technology will only be in charge of administration, maintenance and operation of the internet, making it simple and straightforward for the government and the military to intervene and suppress freedom of expression.
Popular Protests and the Future of the Internet
Amir Rashidi insists that activists and citizens who have taken action to protect online freedoms — including sustained online protest campaigns against the invasion of their privacy — have so far been relatively successful.
"If it were not for these efforts and the government's fear of public anger and street demonstrations, the government would have made the internet and Instagram inaccessible,” Amir Rashidi says. “The problem with the Protection Bill is that they want to listen to people's conversations and to even circumvent the formal judicial process. So reports from Iranian people within the country will be effective. As the government launches its project of gradually reducing access to the internet, civil society must stand up to it."
The new sections of the bill, all of which are in line with previous directives of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, calls for monitoring of the publication of videos, imposes fines and imprisonment for people who violate regulations, gives the Ministry of Communications authority to identify and disconnect anti-filtering software, orders internet service providers to authenticate user identities, levies taxes for social media platforms operated by foreign companies, and establishes a "border crossing” working group to manage incoming and outgoing internet traffic.
Over the last few years, the Leader has repeatedly spoken about the importance of controlling online activities. Most recently, he criticized Instagram for taking down a photograph of Ghasem Soleimani, the Quds Force commander killed by US troops in 2020. ”In today's world, cyberspace is under the control of global arrogance,” he told Soleimani’s family on January 1, 2022 while marking the anniversary of his death. “This fact should alert the country's online authorities to take action to ensure the enemy cannot act according to his own will."
The Death of Anti-filtering Software
The sluggish internet speed and the failure of anti-filter software to adequately connect people to the internet over the past month has sparked outcry from thousands of Iranians. "The internet situation over the last two or three days has been worse than ever," journalist Bahman Darolshafaei said on Twitter. “It’s the same with mobile and home networks. It takes huge efforts to activate anti-filter software, and without it, many popular websites like Gmail and Instagram are slower than usual. Damnit."
Another person on Twitter wrote: "For two or three days, I could not connect to the internet or see videos I wanted to with any anti-filter software.” Then he joked: “This latest one runs on diesel. I miss you, internet.”
Tech journalist Nima Akbarpour noted: "In his letter to Zuckerberg, the Ministry of Communications asked him for the principle of network neutrality to be respected, but the policies of this ministry are based entirely on violating network neutrality. Most obvious is the difference in the price of domestic and foreign internet connections for the consumer — and the conversion of the internet into a filter-net."
Also on Twitter, an individual going by the handle Mani dealt with the crisis with sarcasm: "Internet speed has slowed down so much that if you want the answer to a question, it would be quicker if you actually went to Google headquarters."
"The internet speed is awful," said Azadeh Mokhtari, a journalist. "Please pass this message on to the Minister of Communications.”
These complaints demonstrate the sheer frustration Iranians have been feeling, but they also reflect the more serious, long-term damage to Iranians’ right to access to information and freedom of expression if the new bill comes into force in March.