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Iran tightens grip on internet freedom

Maryam Mirza
February 15, 2022

The Iranian parliament has introduced new measures to enforce restrictions on internet users. Rights activists have slammed the move.

An Iranian park guard enters a password into  his smartphone
A controversial new law could signal a greater loss of internet freedoms in IranImage: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto/picture alliance

More than two years after a weeklong total shutdown of the internet in Iran, Iran's parliament, known as the Majlis, has now said that it will send the Protection Bill, known in Persian as the Tarh-e Sianat, to the Guardian Council by February 20, paving the way for the imposition of more restrictions than ever before on the internet in Iran.

One of the constitutional mandates of the Guardian Council, an appointed body that is perceived as an obstacle to democracy in Iran, is to vet legislation. If the Council finds that a piece of legislation does not comply with sharia law or the constitution then it will return it to the Majlis with revisions. Otherwise, the approved bill is considered to be finalized in law.

While details of the latest version of the Protection Bill are not transparent, lots of internet users, political figures and existing startups in Iran, as well as internet freedom activists and international organizations, have raised the alarm based on the content of a draft version of the bill that was released last year.

'Handing over complete control'

Article 19, a human rights organization that works to defend freedom of information worldwide, described the bill as the "handing over [of] complete control of the internet to authorities."

"This new bill, and what is being implemented in its wake, has been insidious in the ways it is depriving access," Mahsa Alimardani, a senior Middle East internet researcher with Article 19, told DW.

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However, extremists in Iran, who are the main supporters of the bill, dismissed the objections. Bijan Nobaveh-Vatan, who represents the capital, Tehran, in the parliament has called opponents of the bill "supporters of immorality and fornication."

Farnoush, a 28-year-old activist and social worker living in Razavi Khorasan province in northeastern Iran, described the situation as "shameful."

"I have had trouble both in the exams and while studying. I am one of the few people whose camera is always turned off during classes because the internet speed is very low," she told DW.

Maryam, a 35-year-old journalist in Tehran, told DW that constantly having limited access to the internet has had "psychological effects on everyone."

"The pent-up anger that exists inside all of us in this country is the result of the restrictions we have to live with in different spheres of our lives," she said.

Public anger hits the streets

Two years ago, however, public discontent and anger hit the streets. In November 2019, after an abrupt 200% rise in fuel costs, protests began in various Iranian cities, which led to demands for the overthrow of the entire regime of the Islamic Republic. In response, the regime cut off access to the internet for a week.

"When Iran imposes censorship on the people, it shows how much it fears the power of the people on social media. The regime understands that people can show the real face of Iran to the world through social media," Masih Alinejad, an exiled Iranian human rights campaigner, told DW.

According to warnings issued by Iranian officials, anyone sending videos to Alinejad could end up serving a jail sentence of up to 10 years in Iran.

During the one-week internet shutdown in 2019, some of the regime's online arms, both inside and outside the country, tried to justify the blackout and to divert attention away from the demonstrations.

Inside the country, some of those whose access to the internet was guaranteed  during the blackout wrote on social media that the situation was calm and that the protests had already ended. But based on the news and reports that were transmitted to the world in the days that followed, it became clear that one of the bloodiest suppressions of demonstrations ever seen in Iran had taken place.

"A coalition of human rights groups is seeking a United Nations investigation into the atrocities of November 2019, including the internet shutdowns. Unfortunately, these processes are still being figured out," Alimardani from Article 19 told DW.

Several blackouts since 2018

Based on information shared with DW by Amir Rashidi, the director of Digital Rights and Security at the Miaan Group, Iran has shut down the internet eight times from December 2018 to November 2021.

"All of the shutdowns were in response to protests and demonstrations. In some cases, for example in November 2021 in Ahvaz, the internet was cut off, but there had not been any demonstrations at that time, although there had been calls for a demonstration," said Rashidi.

Since the protests in Iran have increasingly become intertwined with blackouts of the internet over the past two years, it is safe to predict that the disruptions will continue over the coming months following the release of a "highly confidential” leaked document obtained by Radio Farda, the Iranian branch of the US government-funded Radio Free Europe.

The document was obtained from a meeting of high-ranking security officials at Sarollah in Iran and described Iranian society as being in a "state of explosion," saying that "social discontent has increased by 300% in the past year."

The document, released on February 2, added that "protests held in Iran over the current Iranian year [which ends on March 21] increased by 48% in comparison with the year before it, and the number of demonstrators increased by 98%."

It was provided to Radio Farda by a group of hackers calling itself Adalat Ali (Justice of Ali). The Sarollah base of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is one of the main institutions responsible for suppressing protests in the country, along with riots and widespread anti-government protests or military threats, such as coups.

Iran wants its own version of the internet

Meanwhile, Iranian authorities are weighing the idea of a national internet, which seems to rely on the idea of denying users access to international search engines, news websites and email servers, and instead offering them replacements developed and controlled by the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

"So many applications and websites that I used to use have become blocked, and inevitably I just stopped using them. This has happened so gradually that my internet usage habits have changed even without me noticing it," said journalist Maryam.

Recent measures are specially worrisome for Iranian internet users, as ties between China and Iran seem stronger since the 25-year Iran–China Strategic Cooperation Agreement was signed last year.

There is concern that Iran, with help from China, may follow the Chinese model of the internet and further isolate Iranians from the rest of the world.

"Iran's internet is already separated from the rest of the world's, but if the purpose is to completely cut off the internet and establish only a national internet … it will lead to very serious costs and problems for the country," Miaan Group's Rashidi told DW.

"Iran is currently disrupting or shutting down the internet in times of unrest, but the main plan is to promote the use of local services to replace a complete blackout with a mix of censorship and spying."

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Edited by: Leah Carter