Social media is already widely restricted in Iran but a controversial censorship bill could choke public debate even further.

With the Internet Protection Bill being pushed in the Iranian parliament, ordinary Iranians stare at the possibility of losing whatever little free access they have to the Internet, which is heavily controlled and monitored by the state.

Since the early 2000s, Iran has blocked thousands of websites and global social media services. Iranians however enjoy free access to a few remaining online platforms including Instagram and Pinterest, which are currently allowed to function in the country. The new bill aims to jeopardize it, too.

Here's a breakdown of draconian Internet restrictions in Iran.

No Youtube, no Twitter

Iranians, who have one of the strictest internet restrictions in the world, have no direct access to popular social media applications such as Netflix, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, Medium, and others. The Iranian government has imposed “SmartFiltering,” a system developed by a US company named Secure Computing Corporation despite Washington having imposed sanctions on Iran that prevent American companies from doing business with the Shia majority country. In its defence, the company said Iran was using its software without permission. Saudi Arabia also uses the same filtering system. 

The software that was put in use in 2014 was initially aimed at relaxing internet restrictions in the country by only filtering the websites that are deemed 'immoral' by the state while allowing access to other websites. 

However, it blocks prominent international English-language websites including the British public broadcaster, BBC.

The government shortly lifted the ban on Telegram, a popular messaging app in 2018 amid strong anti-government protests. The app has been blocked since 2009, despite the previous President Hassan Rouhani, has criticised the move.

However, this didn't mean a step towards free internet access. The country’s director of the National Cyberspace Center of Iran, Abolhassan Firoozabadi said last year that he was looking up to China as a successful role model. The Asian country has been long under fire by human rights organisations for its restrictive measures on the internet. 

State suggests alternative apps, people find alternative solutions

The authorities in the country want to regulate the internet by pushing alternative applications. In July this year, a state-approved dating app, Hamdam, was unveiled to promote marriage. The launch of the app also criminalised the usage of any other dating apps in the country.

The circumstances, on the other hand, lead Iranians to be tech-savvy. Even though many of the social media apps and websites are banned, they still stay connected with the world by using virtual private networks (VPN) software that bypasses the restrictions. 

According to the government-affiliated Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA)’s latest survey, WhatsApp is the most used social network with 71 percent of participants using it despite its ban. Instagram and Telegram are the second most popular apps.

More restrictions could be underway

A bill titled “Legislation to Protect Cyberspace Users” could lead to restricting internet access further in the country. The draft bill was introduced three years ago to the parliament but it’s being pushed by conservative hardliner lawmakers again. It demands popular social media networks comply with Iran’s data ownership rules. If passed, the internet affairs that are now previewed by the civilian government would be overseen by Iran’s armed forces. 

The law can be put in action only if it’s approved by the constitutional watchdog Guardian Council. As per the constitution, it would be then put in a trial period before the parliament’s final approval.

The media giants are unlikely to appoint representatives to Iran, due to sanctions by the US, as well as blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FAFT) to complete the required registration.

A hardliner, Ebrahim Raisi, who was sworn in as president on August 3, previously stated that he supports a layered internet access system. A variety of criterias, including profession, would determine the level of access to the internet. 

If enacted, the bill would also criminalise using VPN services as well as forbidding government officials from having social media accounts that are not registered in the country. 

However, many other politicians, including the reformist former President Rouhani, who actively using Instagram, and Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi denounced the bill. 

Civilian opposition to the bill is also significantly large. Hashtags criticising the bill occasionally make it to Twitter trends, while hundreds of thousands sign a petition demanding the scrapping of the legislation.

According to ISPA, more than 50 per cent of Iranians use Instagram. Iranians say the application’s ban would not only harm rights and freedoms but also the economy. 

Source: TRT World