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Social Media Bill: Iran Lawmakers Pushes For Military Control Of Internet

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Many Iranians uses virtual private networks (VPN) to bypass harsh state censorship of the Internet. (file photo)
Many Iranians uses virtual private networks (VPN) to bypass harsh state censorship of the Internet. (file photo)

A group of 40 Iranian lawmakers has submitted a controversial draft bill to the parliament that could result in harsher online censorship by giving control of the country’s Internet gateways to the armed forces, including the notorious Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The bill also calls for the creation of a board that will oversee social-media platforms and deal with any violations. The board will include representatives from the judiciary and the government, as well as from the IRGC’s feared Intelligence Unit, which has, in recent years, arrested scores of activists, journalists, environmentalists, dual nationals, and others — including a Facebook engineer who recently spoke about his arrest and the pressure he faced from guards.

“This will have an immediate impact on the little Internet freedom left in Iran and the further militarizing of this space,” Fereidoon Bashar, the executive director of the Toronto-based technology group ASL19, which helps Iranians bypass Internet filtering, told RFE/RL.

The proposal also calls for jail terms of up to two years and fines for those producing or distributing — without an official license — proxy tools to bypass the harsh state censorship of the Internet, including virtual private networks (VPN) that many use to access banned sites.

The draft bill, if adopted, could also result in the banning of the few social-media platforms that have not yet been filtered out in Iran.

Iran has already blocked most social-media websites and tools, including Twitter, Facebook, and the popular messaging application Telegram that was first filtered in 2018 following massive street protests after authorities claimed the app endangered national security.

Many Iranians, however, continue to use banned platforms, including Telegram.

Instagram remains unfiltered amid calls by hard-liners to put restrictions on it.

The photo-sharing site was briefly filtered, along with Telegram, in January 2018 amid antiestablishment protests in the country. The secure-messaging application Whatsapp, which became more popular following the blocking of Telegram, has also not been blocked.

The draft proposal says foreign social-media platforms will be able to operate in the country only after designating an Iranian company as their legal representative and working within Iranian law.

It also says the activity of “impactful” foreign and homegrown apps, which Iranians are reluctant to use, will have to be approved and monitored by the supervisory board.

‘Institutionalized Surveillance’

“Otherwise their activities in the country are considered illegal. The Communications Ministry is required to block access to them,” a text of the proposal, which was posted online, says.

“If passed, the new bill will undoubtedly lead to the censorship of Instagram and WhatsApp, and clear the path to institutionalized surveillance and prosecution of Internet users,” ASL19’s Bashar said.

“The current computer crimes law doesn’t mention VPNs at all and is ambiguous over whether distributing or using circumvention tools and VPNs are illegal,” he added.

The draft bill calls for the authentication of all Internet users while also stating that access to users’ data by the government should be allowed in some cases, including crimes against internal and external security, death threats, and rape.

The proposal has angered many Iranians who use social-media platforms for unfiltered news, information, entertainment, relatively open debates, and the exchange of ideas. It has also upset those who use it to make a living, including on the highly popular Instagram, where citizens offer services or conduct business.

In recent weeks, many Iranians have used social media to express their opposition to death sentences issued for three protesters as well as to discuss sexual misconduct against women and rape.

“If foreign social media are so bad and harmful and VPNs should not be used, why do many of the lawmakers who have signed this bill have accounts on Twitter, which is foreign and accessing it requires a VPN,” the news site Salameno.ir asked.

Iranian media reported that 28 of the 40 lawmakers who have signed the proposal have accounts on Twitter, which is blocked in the country for normal citizens despite being used by senior state officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who employ it quite frequently to spread their policies and messages.

A few lawmakers have publicly criticized the proposal, which has been in the works since 2018, and suggested that they’re unlikely to support it.

“I oppose the plan to block all foreign messengers,” lawmaker Ardeshir Motahari tweeted. “This proposal is not a priority of the country. It will make the current bad living situation worse.”

But lawmaker Ali Khezrian, who supports the bill, said “implying” that the bill will lead to the banning of all social media is a “psychological operation,” while adding that all countries enforce laws to protect their citizens on cyberspace.

“Cyberspace has great possibilities and makes opportunities available to people but at the same time can be considered as a threat,” he said.

Iran blocks tens of thousands of websites, including news sites and opposition platforms.

The country often throttles the Internet and disrupts proxy tools during sensitive political times, including during big protests.

In November 2019, amid violent street demonstrations over a sudden hike in gas prices, Iran shut down the Internet and deprived some 57 million people – nearly 70 percent of the population — from going online for several days.

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