Tehran, Iran – A special parliamentary committee has approved the outlines of controversial legislation that many observers believe will lead to tighter restrictions on online activity in Iran despite continuing public opposition.
The so-called “Protection Bill” was first introduced three years ago but legislators were forced to temporarily shelve the legislation last July amid a backlash, with business groups and internet users warning it would harm online freedoms.
An online campaign launched last year to oppose the bill garnered more than 1.1 million signatures, becoming by far the most signed in the history of the website that hosted it.
Proponents of the bill stress its main goal is to regulate cyberspace by introducing necessary protections from harmful content and to support local businesses.
The parliamentary committee set up to handle the bill approved the general outlines of the legislation in a hectic session on Tuesday.
During the session, which was streamed online, one legislator said he had received calls and messages pressuring him to vote for the bill.
Another MP criticised the deputy speaker for allowing the committee session to place, noting that parliament guidelines state all reviews must be halted when parliament is focused on the budget bill.
But ultimately, the outlines of the bill were approved in a session that lasted less than 20 minutes, and the 18 legislators who voted for it – against only a single objecting vote – agreed to quickly begin analysing and ratifying details of the bill.
Those backing the legislation have said they wish to finalise the bill before the end of the current Iranian calendar year on March 20.
In the days leading up to the special committee session, social media users expressed their rejection of the proposed legislation, with hashtags such as #IOpposeTheProtectionBill trending in Iran.
The special session comes after legislators were forced to temporarily put the bill on hold in late July in the face of a growing public backlash.
Proponents invoked an article of the constitution that allows some bills to be deferred to a small, specialised committee that would have the power to ratify and “experimentally” implement legislation. The bill could now be put into effect for years using this method.
Lawmaker Jalal Rashidi, who cast the only opposition vote in the committee on Tuesday, wrote on Twitter afterwards that he had launched an effort to return the bill to a full parliamentary vote.
“So far 55 respected representatives have signed the petition and more signatures are being garnered,” he wrote.
What are the main concerns?
The bill, which has been renamed several times since it was first introduced, has undergone some changes since last summer, but its critics say it still contains the same concerning content with different labelling.
For instance, phrases like “traffic restriction” that critics say could be used to enforce more bans and filters have been changed to “implementing traffic policy”.
The content of the bill has yet to be finalised, but observers say that according to the latest published version, its scope has widened.
While the previous edition of the bill would only affect messaging services and a set of defined “base services”, the newer edition encompasses all online platforms, businesses and shops, observers say.
They warned that if implemented in its current form, it could lead to the disruption of the few major international services and websites – like Instagram – that have not been blocked yet.
Most popular services like YouTube, Twitter, Telegram and Facebook, and countless websites, are filtered in Iran, but users circumvent restrictions by using virtual private networks (VPNs). The bill, however, also aims to criminalise – through setting jail terms and fines – the distribution of VPNs.
Along with introducing more restrictions for foreign services, the legislation looks to provide funding and incentives to local businesses.
However, dozens of major local businesses and tech guilds have voiced their opposition to its ideas, which they say could introduce a myriad of new permits and stringent state controls, while stifling healthy competition.
As the legislation continues to move through parliament, internet connections have slowed noticeably in recent months, especially when linking to major global platforms.
Prominent newspaper Shargh Daily found in a review of two months of government-released data published last week that Instagram bandwidth was significantly restricted every day from about 5pm.
Officials in the administration of President Ebrahim Raisi have admitted that connection speeds have slowed, but they have put the blame squarely on the administration of former President Hassan Rouhani, and on the rising load of online education as schools are shuttered due to the pandemic.
“Fixed-line internet infrastructures have not been developed in recent years and don’t have the capacity to answer for the needs of citizens today,” government spokesman Ali Bahadori Jahromi said on Tuesday.
But lawmaker Mojtaba Tavangar, who heads the parliament’s digital economy commission, blamed ICT Minister Eisa Zarepour in a letter on Tuesday, calling for more accountability.
“Mr. minister, you are obligated to increase internet speeds not to disrupt the internet!” he tweeted.