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Iranian public fears government plan to restrict cyberspace

Critics say the plan harms free access to the Internet and social networking media, which small business owners rely heavily on.
Iran internet

Despite widespread opposition in Iran, lawmakers are working to approve a plan that would severely tighten the government’s control over the Internet.

The plan, titled “Protection of users’ rights in cyberspace and organizing social media,” has been discussed for almost a year in the parliament, supported by hardline lawmakers but widely criticized in Iranian society.

On July 28lawmakers entrusted the next decision on the bill to the parliament’s special cultural commission. Parliament tasked a special committee to review it on September 6. If that commission approves it, the parliament can set a time for its temporary implementation, and there will no need to approve it again in a public session. 

The nearer we get to that point, the more serious criticism and protests inside Iran it triggers. The number of signatories to a petition against the plan has already exceeded one million. Critics, most notably owners of small businesses, say the plan harms free access to the Internet and social networking media, which they heavily rely on.

Under the bill, control over the Internet gate would be transferred from the ICT Ministry to a newly formed inter-organizational entity run by the military and security apparatuses.

This new working group would consist of the head of Supreme Council of Cyberspace at the top, along with representatives from the ICT ministry, the intelligence ministry, the Attorney General, Parliament’s Cultural Commission, the state-run TV and radio organization, the IRGC, law enforcement; the Islamic Development Organization, and the Passive Defense Organization.

This prompted the former ICT minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi  to write to Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Speaker of Parliament, and Ebrahim Raisi, President-elect on August 25, in the last days of his tenure at the ministry to object to a decline in his ministry’s role in the plan.  

A part of the plan that has received most criticism is the restrictions it imposes on messaging networks such as Instagram and WhatsApp — the two major apps that have not been blocked by the Iranian government yet.

According to the bill, the working group will be in charge of setting a ceiling for the broadband traffic for foreign social platforms, which would render apps such as Instagram and WhatsApp useless. If the traffic ceiling for foreign social media is lowered to the level of locally run platforms, it will not be possible to use those messaging websites due to the very low speed of the internet.

Moreover, according to the new cyberspace body, foreign networks would have to come to Iran to obtain the necessary permits and establish local administration in the country and continue their activities in accordance with Iranian regulations. However, due to sanctions, this is practically impossible.

Some observers believe that hardliner groups in the Islamic Republic are following China's lead in trying to impose tough restrictions on the Internet. Proponents of the bill have long argued for “national internet” and have presented China as a role model.

On Oct. 13, Raisi ordered the Supreme Council of Cyberspace and the ICT ministry to seriously pursue the “national Internet” network. "Under circumstances when the enemies are invading the Iranian people, privacy and personal information in the country, any negligence … is not acceptable," Raisi said, emphasizing the "need to make cyberspace safe and secure."

However, Raisi denied during the June presidential debates that his government would seek to restrict access to cyberspace. "The Internet is like water and electricity for the people, and the people must have access to the Internet," Raisi said in a televised debate on June 12.

While political observers did not take the president's promises seriously during the presidential campaigns, it now seems that the "national Internet" is becoming a nightmare and people are panicking as Raisi is getting further away from the elections and tightens his grip on power.

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