Iran: Parliament moves to ratify central elements of oppressive Internet Bill

Iran: Parliament moves to ratify central elements of oppressive Internet Bill - Digital

A collective of Iranian graffiti artists took a stand against the aggressive Internet censorship policies being implemented by the Islamic Republic. Photo: Khiaban Tribune

Following publication, new information was released by an Iranian Member of Parliament (MP). Iranian MP Jalal Rashidi Koochi, who sits on the User Protection Bill’s commission, and who voted against ratification today, has posted a document on Twitter signed by Behzad Pourseyyed, the Parliament’s deputy for internal regulations. The note claims ratification has been annuled. Pourseyyed argues that the Bill has been ratified without following due process. This does not mean the Bill has been annulled, but measures need to be taken to meet legal requirements so the ratification will be valid.

ARTICLE 19 condemns the ratification of the central elements of the ‘User Protection Bill’ carried forward by the Iranian Parliament today, 22 February. 

Ratification ensures injustice to the Iranian people will continue due to the draconian content of the Bill and the haphazard way the legislation  was introduced.  The bill has been effectively bulldozed through Parliament without due process.  

ARTICLE 19 urges the Iranian authorities to put an end to the  alarming curbs on access to the Internet in Iran. The international community — in particular those states involved in negotiations related to trade or the nuclear deal — must act now in order to increase pressure on Iranian authorities to withdraw the Bill.  ARTICLE 19 considers the Bill to have no place in the Internet age.

Background

To fast-track ratification of the Bill, the Iranian Parliament invoked an unorthodox legislative method that circumvents the usual parliamentary processes in July 2021.  

A specialist committee was charged with ratifying the Bill and implementing it during an experimental phase to last for between three and five years at least. There is a strong risk that the implementation period could be longer, depending on final ratification by Parliament under Article 85 of the Islamic Republic’s Constitution. 

The specialist committee approved the central elements of the final draft of the Bill during an unexpected session on 22 February in less than 20 minutes. 

The Parliament was not scheduled to agree to the Bill before the annual Budget Bill was approved due before mid-March.

“Pockets of freedom of expression online have been among the few places of refuge from the Islamic Republic of Iran’s oppressive management of the public sphere. Today’s move to enforce the draconian ‘User Protection Bill’ is a dark day for human rights in Iran. The repercussions on freedom of expression, access to information, privacy and freedom of assembly are deeply disturbing,” said Mahsa Alimardani, Senior MENA Programme Officer. 

What will ratification change?

ARTICLE 19 has been documenting the steps authorities have taken to implement parts of the Bill for over six months. On 21 February 2022,  there were widespread reports that Instagram was being purposefully throttled[mfn]Bandwidth throttling is defined as intentionally disrupting access to Internet platforms to slow them down so that they become difficult or impossible to use, especially for uses that require more Internet data, such as sharing photos, voice notes, videos, or calls.[/mfn]. Instagram, one of the few foreign applications not filtered in Iran, has been seen as the biggest casualty of this Bill. 

The Bill requires international tech companies to have a legal representative in Iran to comply with Iranian laws, and to cooperate with the Iranian government in surveilling users and censoring online spaces. Access to services that do not comply will be throttled and the Committee Charged with Determining Offensive Content (CCDOC) can eventually decide to outright ban them. 

In practice, however, international tech companies, especially firms with ties to the United States, will be unable to legally accept these demands, due to the far-reaching US sanctions regime in place against the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the unlikely event that international tech companies that do not have entities or business that deal with or are based in the United States collaborate, there will be severe repercussions for all Internet users in Iran. We believe they should not comply. 

Although authorities quietly implemented parts of the Bill, including throttling and lowering international bandwidth, ratification will mean two things beyond the existing trajectory of tightening the net.

First, the Bill’s provisions mean that platforms that refuse to cooperate with the government’s demands will be subject to bandwidth throttling. This marks a significant shift for censorship within the Islamic Republic, where ‘throttling’ has previously been implemented but had never been officially acknowledged as government policy up until now. 

Second, we will see Iran’s Internet infrastructure and Internet gateways placed in the control of the armed forces and security agencies. Under the Bill, control over the key communication infrastructure, namely international gateways, the infrastructure connecting Iran to the Internet, will be delegated to an ad hoc agency controlled by the armed forces and security agencies. Delegating this level of control over Internet and communications access to entities that lack transparency and accountability is deeply concerning. The move will make implementation of Internet shutdowns and online censorship extremely easy and opaque.

“Access to the Internet has been a major obstacle for security agencies in their efforts to quash dissent or prevent evidence-gathering of human rights crimes committed by authorities, especially during protests. It is why the Internet has been shut down during protests, including the bloody crackdown on November 2019 protests. Handing over control of Internet gateways and the infrastructure to entities that have been responsible for killing and maiming protesters is akin to handing over control of a healthcare system to vampires,” said Alimardani.

Today, they agreed that the final draft of the Bill will undergo no further fundamental changes, and all content within the Articles of the current draft are final. This is the version that will be sent to the constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council, by mid-March before the Parliament breaks for the Persian New Year, Nowruz. The Guardian Council is expected to quickly approve this version.

 

Press inquiries

Contact Mahsa Alimardani, mahsa@article19.org or press@article19.org