Iranians fear new law will further restrict internet


TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — For 40-year-old Ali Hedieloo, who makes wooden furniture in Iran’s capital, Instagram is more than just a bunch of shiny photos. Like the estimated 1 million Iranians, it finds customers that way, as the app has grown into a massive e-commerce service in the sanction-affected country.

But now, the social media platform has come under threat. Iran has moved towards more government restrictions on Instagram and other apps last week, as hardline lawmakers agreed to debate a bill that many fears would undermine communication, destroy livelihoods and open the door to bans on key social media tools.

Hedieloo, of his dimly lit workshop in Tehran’s southern suburbs, said he sanded bleached wood and took photos of ornate tables to advertise.

The bill has yet to be approved by Iran’s hardline parliament, but it is already causing concern among young Iranians, avid social media users, online business owners and entrepreneurs. Iran is a country where approximately 94 million internet devices are used among its population of more than 80 million. About 70% of Iran’s population uses smartphones.

More than 900,000 Iranians signed a petition against the bill. The protest comes at a tense time for Iran, with Ebrahim Raisi, the former head of the judiciary and the fierce patroness of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, assuming the country’s highest civilian position this week. Journalists, civil society advocates, and government critics were alarmed at the possible escalation of social pressure when he took office.

The bill, first proposed by conservative lawmakers this spring, would require major foreign tech giants like Facebook to register with the Iranian government and be subject to surveillance and data ownership rules.

Companies hosting unregistered social media apps in Iran will risk being penalized, and the fact that authorities have the power to slow companies’ access to their services is one way to force them to comply. The lawmakers noted that the crippling US sanctions on Iran effectively ensured their bans, making it impossible for American tech companies to register in the country.

The law will also criminalize the sale and distribution of virtual private networks and proxies, a critical way for Iranians to access long-blocked social media platforms such as Facebook, Telegram, Twitter and YouTube. It will also prevent government officials from running accounts on banned social media platforms that they now use to communicate with citizens and the press. Even the religious leader’s office has a Twitter account with over 890,000 followers.

And finally, the bill takes control of the internet from the civilian government and places it under the armed forces.

According to the authors of the bill, its purpose is to “protect users and their rights”. Conservatives in government have long viewed social messaging and media services as part of a “soft war” of the West against the Islamic Republic. Over time, Iran has created what some call “halal” internet – the Islamic Republic’s own locally controlled version of the internet, aimed at restricting what the public can see.

Supporters of the bill, such as hard-line lawmaker Ali Yazdikhah, hailed it as a step towards an independent Iranian internet, where “people will begin to prefer locally developed services to foreign companies.”

“There is no reason to worry, online businesses will stay and we promise even they will grow,” he said.

However, Internet advocates fear that the measures will steer the country towards a more tightly controlled model like China, whose “Great Firewall” blocks access to thousands of foreign websites and slows down others.

Iran’s outgoing Information Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi warned that the bill would reduce access to information and lead to a complete ban of popular messaging apps, which the strict judiciary called for prosecuting for its refusal to block Instagram earlier this year. In a letter to Raisi last month, he urged the incoming president to reconsider the bill.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Social media is a highly controversial area in Iran, where the government has tight control over newspapers and remains the only entity allowed to broadcast on television and radio. In recent years, anti-government protesters have used social media as a means of communication to mobilize and spread their message, causing authorities to disrupt internet services.

For example, during the turmoil in the fall of 2019, the government implemented an almost total internet shutdown. Even sporadic demonstrations, such as the recent protests over water shortages in southwestern Iran, have resulted in disruptions to mobile internet service.

But many ordinary Iranians, shaken by harsh American sanctions that cut off access to international banking systems and trigger runaway inflation, remain preoccupied with the bill’s potential financial repercussions.

As the coronavirus ravages Iran, more and more people like Hedieloo have taken to Instagram to make a living by giving and selling homemade products and art classes. More than 190,000 businesses moved online last year.

While much remains unclear about the bill’s fate, experts say it’s already sending a chill out through commerce on Instagram, where once-hopeful users now doubt they have a future with the app.

“I and everyone else working in cyberspace is worried,” said Milad Nouri, software developer and technology analyst. “This includes a teenager playing online games, a YouTuber monetizing his channel, an influencer, an Instagram-based online store.”

“Everyone is stressed in some way,” he added.


DeBre reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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