Women use their smartphones at a park in Tehran. Photo: AFP / Shota Mizuno / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Deliberations are underway in Iran’s parliament to outlaw the use of international social media platforms and instant messaging services, legislation that threatens to cast the country into cyber-darkness.

The pending bill would also criminalize the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxy servers now used to bypass internet blocks and bans in a country that enforces one of the most rigorous online censorship regimes in the world.

The bill, ironically titled “Protecting the Rights of Users in Cyberspace and Organizing Social Messengers,” has stirred nationwide controversy.

Journalists, political and online activists, lawyers and ordinary citizens all fear the restrictions will administer a coup de grâce to Iran’s already debilitated civil society and eliminate the few online rights and liberties that remain available to the people.

Some MPs have come forward to assuage the public’s anxiety, saying the Majlis does not want to tighten the noose on the internet and limit people’s privacy and freedoms online.

But the details of the motion released by local media suggest ultra-conservatives now assured of holding power across the three branches of government, unelected bodies and armed forces with the rise to power of President-elect Ebrahim Raisi have concluded that they should strike while the iron is hot and consummate plans for cutting Iran off from the outside world, like North Korea.

According to the proposed legislation, foreign online service providers that do not have a representative office in Iran will be pronounced illicit and made unavailable to users.

Considering the broad-ranging sanctions that preclude the Islamic Republic’s collaboration with international partners, it would be a tall order for American and European tech companies to establish bureaus in Tehran just to ensure Iranian users can continue taking advantage of their products.

A man checks the Clubhouse App on his phone in Tehran. The app was a rare forum for debate before this year’s presidential election but Iranian moderators were criticized for excluding some voices. Photo: AFP

This means the parliament has probably taken it for granted that these services and utilities are going to divest from Iran.

The motion will also assign the task of “gatekeeping the cyberspace” and defending digital bottlenecks to the General Staff of the Armed Forces and prohibit government entities from offering services through foreign instant messengers and social media platforms.

Islamic Republic authorities have in the past suggested transforming Iran into an “Islamic Japan,” to take the lead in economic, social and political development and represent a role model for the regional countries and Muslim world.

Critics say now that the authorities have settled instead on the purgatory of “Islamic North Korea,” characterized by economic isolation, poor infrastructure, unbridled repression and detachment from the rest of the world.

Internet and social media are among the few apertures that keep Iranians connected internationally, allowing reports about the country and its many challenges to trickle out to the global public.

For many Iranians owning cottage industries, the internet facilitates their businesses. As of 2019, more than 50,000 online businesses registered with the Ministry of Industry, Mine and Trade, employing roughly 300,000 people.

On Instagram, one of the few social media platforms still not blocked, there are as many as 47 million Iranian users. The economies of a million users, including the owners of 200,000 small and medium-sized enterprises and 500,000 local businesses, are partially or entirely reliant on the app.

Instagram is a particular thorn in the side of the hardliners, and there have been frequent attempts by the parliament and judiciary to block the American photo and video sharing social networking service.

Shamim Yousefi (R) photographs a handmade gold earring designed and made by Hasti Hezaveh, owner of the Hastijewelry brand, for uploading on Instagram. Photo: AFP / Morteza Nikoubazl / NurPhoto

Almost all the major social media platforms and mobile-based applications are banned, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, SoundCloud, Telegram, TikTok and Signal. Tech-savvy Iranians manage to access them with the help of VPNs and proxy servers.

However, such workarounds significantly slow down internet connectivity. Due to the government’s regular speed throttling, even the intermediated use of banned websites and services is sluggish.

In 2012, an initiative was put forward by the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology to legally sell VPNs to certain groups of people, including journalists, university students and professors, who need information from websites that are blacked out.

So far, the use of VPNs has not been officially outlawed but there is no definitive policy on them, signaling the government’s ambivalence on how to reconcile growing demand for internet-based services and its ideological concerns.

Domestic suppliers of VPNs, some of which operate underground for fear of becoming known to the authorities and facing reprisal, generate a turnover of $25 million per year. Michael Hull, the head of the circumvention tool Psiphon, said in a May 2019 interview that between one and two million people in Iran use the secure navigation widget.

It is hard to measure the actual depth of Iran’s online censorship. The Guardian reported back in 2013 that nearly five million websites, including droves of international news sites and broadcasters, were filtered by the government.

In 2019, local media reported that of the world’s top 1,000 most popular websites ranked by Alexa.com, only 35% are inaccessible to Iranian users.

President Hassan Rouhani has blocked attempts to ban Instagram. Photo: AFP / Iranian Presidency

In recent years, the Iranian leadership has ramped up calls for increased scrutiny of cyberspace, mostly to stamp out critical coverage of Iran in the global media aided by Iranians inside the country who collaborate with these outlets or function as their fixers and citizen journalists.

The aim also is to limit communications between Iranians and the West and prevent Iranians from being enchanted with and adopting Western lifestyles.

The Majlis debate over the bill has evoked concern that the ultimate goal of the establishment is to carry out its much-hyped National Information Network, or the national internet, and pull the plug on the global internet.

This happened during November 2019 protests when the internet was shut down for 10 days to quell a massive uprising over fuel price hikes.

Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher with the Article 19 human rights organization, says the Islamic Republic is not a monolith and there are differences on whether to implement a full-blown internet ban or simply stiffen existing restrictions.

“There are still strong economic incentives to keep Iran connected to the international internet, and the research I have done, especially through Article 19, indicates that the infrastructure is being simultaneously built to ensure both decentralization and connection to international traffic, while also strengthening and building the capabilities of the national internet,” she said.

“New policies such as tiered access to different parts of unfiltered internet also give an indication that they are not moving towards full disconnection, but rather to more controlled connections,” she told Asia Times.

Alimardani says international organizations can help the Iranian people by pressuring the government in Tehran to desist from unwarranted prohibitions. She also believes US sanctions have provided incentive for officials to augment curbs on online liberties.

Saba Rahmani, 23, designer and owner of the Catsestyle Scarf collection, checks a photograph on her laptop before uploading on her Instagram page. Photo: AFP / Morteza Nikoubazl / NurPhoto

“Bodies where Iran feels at home, like the International Telecommunications Union, and regional partners, especially in the field of ICT need to put pressure on Iran to move away from these restrictive models that are holding back Iran’s ICT industry,” she said.

“The excuse of nationalizing and relying solely on national internet and ICT infrastructure has been precipitated by the fact that core services and infrastructures of the internet which are predominately owned by and operated from the United States are often banned from operating within Iran or for Iranians because of either direct sanctions laws or over-compliance of companies,” she added.

The 290-member Majlis, in which a strong majority of 221 MPs are perceived as hardliners, had pledged at the beginning of its work in February 2020 that its priority would be to fix the tattered economy and improving people’s livelihoods.

But with legislation aimed at accelerating the Islamic Republic’s nuclear brinkmanship and the new bill to introduce new internet constraints, it is not clear that’s the case.

“People are already severely stressed because of inflation and Covid-19. Adding a new layer of oppression benefits nobody,” said Soraya Lennie, an investigative journalist and author of the book Crooked Alleys: Deliverance and Despair in Iran.

Iranian MPs salute Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in parliament via video connection. Photo: AFP via khamenei.ir

“It could exacerbate the situation to the point of protests without a doubt, but these things don’t happen in isolation,” she said, predicting that the new strictures could galvanize a popular response.

“The security apparatus would have calculated that should anything occur, they already have the ability and systems in place to shut things down quickly.

“Clearly this plan has little support amongst the populace and there are certainly elements in politics who oppose it.  On an already stressed population, adding further restrictions could be problematic and exacerbate dissent,” she told Asia Times.

Other experts say Iran is trying to replicate the Chinese model of internet governance, albeit in a more iron-fisted manner.

“Iran is trying to take an approach that is similar to the Chinese approach to cyberspace sovereignty,” said Roxana Vatanparast, a legal scholar and the founder of Opinio Juris Consulting, an international legal consultancy.

“This is done by attaching sovereignty to ICT infrastructure and requiring data localization, for example, requiring Telegram to store its data on Iranian users on data servers in the country so that they can attempt to control and filter what information, communications and data is flowing in and out of its borders,” she added.

Yet, Alimardani of Article 19 doubts the Iranian people will acquiesce easily to the proposed new standards: “There is no doubt this will add to the piles of existing grievances and possibly contribute to more eruptions.”