Total Control Over Internet Use in Iran Sought by Security Agencies with New Legislation
Parliament Maneuvers to Pass Bill Without Full Vote to Avoid Public Scrutiny
Move Comes on Heels of State’s Internet Shutdowns During Crackdown on Protesters
July 30, 2021 – In a bid to sidestep public scrutiny of a contentious new bill that would give Iran’s security agencies near-total control over internet use inside the country, the Iranian Parliament has voted to refer the bill to an internal committee that has the power to pass legislation without full parliamentary review.
“This bill is simply another weapon that the Iranian authorities will wield against the people of Iran, blocking internet access during protests and other events when safe access to information and communication is vital,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“By furiously working to prevent Iranians from communicating with one another and engaging with the outside world through the internet, the authorities are showing themselves to be terrified of their own people,” he added.
The bill would further restrict an already heavily censored and monitored internet in Iran. It follows the government’s shutdown of the internet after protests over water shortages, which erupted on July 15 in Khuzestan Province and quickly evolved into anti-state demonstrations in other cities across Iran, which were violently suppressed by security forces.
Initially scheduled for parliamentary discussion on July 26, a review of the controversial “Bill for the Protection of the Rights of Cyberspace Users” was suspended as the country was roiled with protest, only to be referred to the internal parliamentary committee on July 28.
According to Article 85 of Iran’s Constitution, Parliament can delegate legislative power to its own committees “whenever necessary,” thus sidestepping the deliberation process that could hamper the bill’s progress. Once approved by the Guardian Council, the bill would be enforced throughout the country for a test period.
The bill imposes stricter limits on internet usage in Iran, allows state security agencies to surveil citizens more easily, and severely limits the use of popular foreign apps and online services.
Article 9 of the bill calls for a task force composed of military and intelligence agencies to control internet access in the country.
Chaired by the head of the National Center for Cyberspace, which was established by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and composed of representatives from the Armed Forces General Headquarters, Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization, Ministry of Intelligence, Ministry of Communications, Passive Defense Organization, and the judiciary, the bill aims to allow these groups “to make necessary decisions on the security of communications and information as well as manage the country’s internal and external traffic through secure border gateways.”
Many of the world’s most-used apps and online services are already banned in Iran, yet this bill aims to further restrict access. Article 12 targets “influential foreign providers of basic services” (such as Gmail, Google, Instagram, etc.), stating they should be required to name an official representative in Iran “and follow [state] guidelines” within four months after the bill becomes law, or else they would be blocked.
This would deny millions of Iranians access to major online services without circumvention tools that enable users to access blocked sites such as virtual private networks (VPNs), which hide user identity. Article 33 of the bill also prohibits the sale of VPNs.
Article 17 allocates faster internet speeds to domestic networks that are heavily censored by the security establishment, and which enable easy state access into accounts for surveillance purposes. Article 22 bans all government offices from using foreign networks for emails and other basic services.
Governments, Companies Need to Ensure Iranians’ Access to Circumvention Tools
The proposed legislation reflects the central role of the internet in the Iranian authorities’ efforts to suppress dissent and control the citizenry of Iran. It sharply highlights the need to ensure that the people of Iran have access to the tools and services they need to circumvent the state’s growing online censorship and surveillance capacities.
While U.S. sanctions on the Islamic Republic have significantly limited international trade within the country, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has exempted personal communications tools and services from sanctions on Iran. Yet many companies have remained reluctant to sell products to Iran, and banks to process transactions, due to fears of sanctions violations.
Digital and human rights organizations have persistently requested that the U.S. government, in concert with private tech firms, facilitate Iranians’ access to these products, by updating, expanding, and clarifying exemptions for communications products, and encouraging companies to sell them to the people of Iran.
Bill Violates Right to Information and Hampers Business, Science, Education, and Medicine
The proposed internet bill would not only violate Iranians’ right to access information, it would also severely hamper business operations in the country, as many are heavily reliant on foreign tools, services, and technologies for their operations, as well as other sectors that rely on online information and exchange, such as science, medicine, and education.
“…[T]his bill deserve serious criticism not just because of any specific articles or clauses, but rather its whole approach and overall spirit deserves reflection and revision because not only is a significant portion of it unenforceable, it will also result in nothing but dissatisfaction and distrust among users towards domestic service providers, and put more pressure on various segments of society and small businesses and jeopardize their survival.”
Bill Reinforces Fears that Rights Situation Would Worsen Under President-elect Raisi
The proposed bill and the maneuvering to pass it with minimal public scrutiny follows the inauguration of President-Elect Ebrahim Raisi, who has played a central role in egregious human rights violations in Iran for decades, and who has demonstrated consistent support for repressive and unlawful measures.
The appointment of another known violator of human rights, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, as Iran’s new head of the judiciary, has added to concerns that the rights situation in Iran is steadily worsening.
“While Iranians are taking to the streets and risking their lives against violent security forces to demand their rights, including access to water, political freedom, and free speech, the Iranian government is working harder to further deny their rights,” said Ghaemi.