Note to readers: Since we published this story on Wednesday, it has emerged that the presidium of the Iranian parliament has also agreed to annul the joint commission’s decision to green-light Iran’s so-called ‘User Protection Bill’. This means the draft legislation, which could have had a seismic impact on Iranian citizens’ digital rights, privacy and access to the internet, will not advance further for the time being. Presidium spokesman Nezam Mousavi said on Thursday that the presidium agreed with internal regulations deputy Behzad Pourseyyed, below, and no future reviews of the bill will be conducted until after the 2022-23 budget review.
On Tuesday of the Iranian parliament approved the core elements of a draconian plan to restrict Iranian citizens’ access to the internet. By 18 votes to one, members of the special commission reviewing the so-called “Bill for the Protection of Cyberspace Users”, also known as the User Protection Bill, gave the green light to a welter of hugely contested measures. These include requiring international tech companies to comply with impossible Iranian internal regulations, including surveilling and censoring online spaces, or face bandwith throttling. The bill also places control of Iran’s internet infrastructure and gateways in the hands of the Armed Forces and security agencies.
Hours later, however, Iranian MP Jalal Rashidi Koochi, who sat on the commission and was the sole member opposed to the bill, posted a document on Twitter signed by Behzad Pourseyyed, the Parliament’s deputy for internal regulations, stating that the ratification was void. "As I mentioned today,” he wrote, “the generalities of today's session were controversial, and according to a letter from the Deputy Minister of Parliamentary Law, today's vote is legally flawed and unacceptable." At least 55 MPs are understood to have signed a request for the bill to be brought back before the legislature.
Joint commissions are drawn from the Iranian parliament to examine a given scheme or bill where its contents go beyond the scope of a single commission. In this case, the committee can implement it for an “experimental” period lasting a full three to five years. Before Koochi’s intervention this appeared to be exactly what had happened on Tuesday, in an extraordinary session that lasted less than 20 minutes.
Further restrictions on the internet in Iran have been backed by a number of key individuals in both the executive and unelected corridors of power, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has recently called the internet “out of control” and should not be “ceded to the enemy”, and chairman of the Iranian parliament’s Cultural Committee, who called mass social media protests against the bill an act of “sabotage”.
Does the Bill Itself Matter?
The wide-ranging plan to limit free internet access in Iran was first tabled three years ago. It has been given various different euphemistic names in this time, including the “Social Media Organizing Plan” and recently the “Digital Services Regulatory System”. Whatever it has happened to be dubbed at the time, the goal remains the same: increasing control over Iranian citizens’ digital activities by placing insurmountable limitations on foreign platforms, including Instagram on Whatsapp, and allowing for drastically increased surveillance by the Iranian Armed Forces and security apparatus. The latest draft indicates that even commonly used anti-filtering software such as VPNs could be rendered ineffective.
Successive amendments since then, however, show there is still a high degree of opposition to the bill even within the conservative-dominated Iranian parliament. The timeline of the bill’s passage through the eleventh parliament has been peppered by failure and re-referral to the joint commission. The latest annulment could well be followed by another if opposition persists.
Siamak Aram, an assistant professor of computer science and data analytics at Harrisburg University, Pennsylvania, says the long trajectory of the “User Protection Bill” is irrelevant. Aram believes that with it, the state only intends to give a legal underpinning to changes that are already afoot. “This same project is currently being implemented in Iran in other ways,” he told IranWire. “Parts of it have come in the form of a slowing-down of the internet, bandwidth restrictions, and restrictions placed on platforms such as Instagram at different times.”
In recent months sporadic disruption to internet traffic has been reported all over Iran, including in state media on Tuesday, shortly after the committee’s vote. Government spokesman Ali Bahadori Jahromi blamed the slowdown on a surge in connections and, more confusingly given the lack of recent lockdowns or stay-at-home orders, on the latest “coronavirus peak”.
What Could it Mean for Ordinary Citizens?
For Siamak Aram, one of the biggest concerns is the mention in the latest draft of “legal” vs “illegal” VPN software. The proposed, “legal” VPNs, he said, “allow the government to have direct control over the activities of Iranian users. At times when the Internet was cut off in Iran, some journalists and officials used VPNs to access the internet and some websites and platforms. These ‘licensed’ VPNs would give banks, intelligence agencies, universities, certain social groups and individuals different levels of access. It will also make Iran's digital space similar to the mobile phone services; all users will know they can be either tapped or eavesdropped on, and will therefore restrict their own activities."
Though the Islamic Republic might well be able to develop domestic alternatives to some platforms and services, Aram believes uptake among ordinary Iranians is likely to be low: “Our experience of Telegram has shown the system’s inability to provide alternatives. If the protection plan is implemented right now, there will be no alternatives to the blocked or restricted spaces." In other countries such as China and Russia, he added, relatively large numbers of citizens use alternatives to Facebook and other platforms because “users know the rulers’ sole concern is political issues” – whereas in Iran, posting about their religious, social and personal lives could also make them a target.
In reality, though, Aram said, the Iranian government will struggle to stop Iranians accessing the wider internet and social media for good. At every turn, technological innovation and Iranians’ own ingenuity has allowed many to circumvent the existing blockades. Though each time the contested User Protection Bill is pushed forward it serves to “intimidate” the population, “the pressure of public opinion has created serious danger for the government in the event of this plan’s full implementation. That’s why the Islamic Republic has not yet been able to impose serious restrictions, or even give them a legal backing.”
Musa Barzin Khalifehlou, IranWire’s legal consultant, said if implemented the bill would represent a clear violation of Iranian citizens’ human rights, including the right to freedom of expression. In addition, imposing restrictions on foreign providers would be impossible: “Iran wants to impose its own regulations these companies, which are in outright conflict with legal structures in the countries they come from.” Citizens, he said, should keep up the pressure on parliament by using their rights enshrined in Article 27 of the Iranian Constitution to gather and protest in public, by contacting their MP, and taking part in one of the many online campaigns against the bill.