Under pressure, Iranian MPs postpone internet restriction bill

The legislation aims to criminalise the use of blocked services, hand some internet controls to armed forces.

Iranian man checking the Clubhouse App on his smartphone
Critics say the bill aims to introduce more internet controls in a country where most prominent global services are already banned [File: AFP]

Tehran, Iran – Iran’s parliament has suspended its review of a highly controversial bill that a minister, citizens and businesses say will only lead to more internet restrictions in the country.

The bill, first proposed three years ago, is titled “Protecting Users in Cyberspace and Organising Social Media” but critics say it is aimed at introducing more controls in a country where most prominent global services are already banned.

An online petition calling for the legislation to be scrapped has already garnered close to half a million signatures.

Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi denounced the bill in letters to parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and President-elect Ebrahim Raisi that surfaced on Sunday.

The outgoing minister said the bill will limit users’ free access to information, weaken the government’s role in cyberspace decision-making, and make the ministry practically obsolete.

Raisi, who will be sworn in as Iran’s eighth president next month, has previously discussed his support for a “layered” internet access system based on a variety of criteria, including profession.

The long-gestating legislation may still be given the go-ahead by the parliament with a number of lawmakers backing it.

However, for it to become law, it will still need to be approved by the Guardian Council, a hardline constitutional vetting body.

In a joint statement on Monday, 47 of Iran’s largest digital businesses, including online retailers, video on-demand streaming services and ISPs, expressed their concerns.

“We stress that this bill will certainly not benefit Iranian internet businesses and its designers must know that its damages to local businesses will far outweigh its benefits,” they wrote.

The Tehran ICT Guild and the Iranian E-Commerce Association also condemned the bill in separate statements.

What’s in the bill?

A controversial article of the bill – dealing with foreign service providers – could mean mass filtering of remaining services that have yet to be blocked.

It says local and foreign service providers must follow Iran’s rules.

To do so, they must register in Iran and have a representative who could be held accountable if something Iranian regulators see as unfavourable takes place on their platforms.

Milad Monshipour, CEO and co-founder of Tap30, one of Iran’s largest ride-hailing services, said in a tweet on Sunday the implications could be catastrophic.

“This bill can not only restrict people’s access to global services like those of Google and Instagram, but it can also veer the digital industry towards destruction through creating new unclear permits and redundant regulations in addition to removing data ownership rights,” he said.

In addition, the legislation wants to identify users and what services they employ, although it remains unclear why and how this is to be implemented.

It further obligates the ICT ministry to ensure that the bandwidth provided to local services is at least twice that of their foreign counterparts and says the only way mobile phones developed outside the country can be imported is if Iranian messaging apps are installed on them.

The legislation also criminalises – setting jail terms and fines – for the use of banned services, including VPNs.

YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Telegram are among the popular services blocked in Iran but VPNs are widely used to access them.

“The gist of their ‘protection’ bill is that even the partially-free flow of information that is struggling to breathe in filternet is too much and we must try so the whole of Iran’s people will only see what we like and only publish what we agree with,” tweeted Jadi, a prominent developer and blogger.

The bill also aims to make internet use more of a security issue in a country that has experienced internet blackouts during public protests.

It proposes the formation of a regulatory committee that, among others, includes representatives from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Passive Defence Organisation, law enforcement, and state broadcasting.

It also says control of the country’s internet bandwidth must be handed over to the armed forces while the methodology for deciding what constitutes data privacy must be devised by the intelligence ministry in cooperation with armed forces.

Source: Al Jazeera