Middle East

Iran’s move to restrict internet access faces opposition

Controversial bill also seeks to criminalize production, distribution of VPNs which bypass internet filters

Syed Zafar Mehdi   | 30.07.2021
Iran’s move to restrict internet access faces opposition

TEHRAN

Iran has taken another step toward restricting internet access after the country’s parliament approved a bill that calls for banning popular social media messengers and replacing them with local versions.

The controversial bill termed ‘protecting the rights of users in cyberspace and organizing social media messengers,” also seeks to criminalize the production and distribution of virtual private networks (VPNs), which are used to bypass internet filters in Iran.

The bill is currently being reviewed by the parliament’s cultural commission, which will then send it to the Guardian Council, a top body empowered to vet legislation.

If the Guardian Council gives its nod to the bill, it will be implemented on an “experimental basis” for a stipulated period of time, according to the law.

The bill was approved by the conservative-controlled parliament on Wednesday 121-74, with lawmakers invoking Article 85 of the Iranian Constitution, which calls for establishing a specialized committee to review a bill, instead of putting it to vote, and then experimentally implementing it for 3-5 years.

In the last few days, as the parliamentary commission evaluates the bill, the issue has caught the imagination of people, with many journalists, activists, politicians, and entrepreneurs decrying it.

Those batting for the bill have sought to promote locally-made social media platforms in place of popular networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, which they say block “resistance content."

Reza Taghipour, a lawmaker from Tehran, in defense of the bill said local social media applications have shown “it is possible to rely on internal capacities,” as foreign messengers “earn money from the country but do not pay taxes here."

However, those opposing the measure, such as lawmakers Jalal Mahmoudzadeh and Ruhollah Hazratpour, believe it will cause “irreparable damage to the country’s economy and public relations."

Hazratpour, in his opposition to the bill, said it will “put millions of internet businesses in crisis,” adding that such “blind decisions” are “against the will of the people.”

Iran’s parliament head Baqar Qalibaf in a statement on Thursday, while lending support for the measure, said the review process will be “transparent and public."

His assurances, however, are not sufficient enough to pacify those who are opposed to the move.

Top reformist figure and grandson of the country’s founder, Hassan Khomeini, has criticized the plan, saying the main condition for the success of any law is “public consent.”

Mojtaba Tavangar, a lawmaker from northern Tabriz province, in a statement said the Guardian Council is “likely to oppose it,” while seeing the measure as a challenge for the new president, Ebrahim Raeisi.

The loudest resistance to the plan has, however, come from internet businesses whose work is directly tied to the internet and major social media networks.

Tehran’s e-commerce association, which consists of top local e-firms like Alibaba, Digi Kala, Bazaar Cafe, Divar, Aparat, Filimo, in a letter to the parliament head, expressed concern over the measure, which they said is “opposed to strategic policies of boosting production, facilitating business operations."

The head of Tehran’s e-tourism association, Hassan Taghizadeh, in a statement said more than 90% of tourism happens through cyberspace, fearing that the sector will be hit hard by the measure.

The outgoing minister of communications, Azari Jahromi, also shot a letter to the parliament head, saying the plan will “create a financial burden for the new government” and “put the government against people and businesses."

Popular social media applications like Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram are blocked in Iran, and accessible only through VPNs.

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