The Right to Post, Like and Share

By: Peter Xavier Rossetti

In the twenty-first century, the internet has become a vital method of communication. Most
people use it to receive information, socialise and express personal feelings, emotions and/or
concerns on an abundance of issues to a wide audience. It is these attributes that create the
internet’s enabling nature. The idea that the internet is a place of limitless connections and we,
as its users, are limitless by extension, has helped mould it into a cornerstone in popular culture.
Ultimately, it has become a very hard thing to live without and yet that is exactly the reality many
Iranians will come to face.

The government of Iran has a complicated history with suppressing access to the internet and
consequently the freedoms of expression, association and information. From the early 1990s to
the mid 2000s Iranians enjoyed free access to the internet without much government
intervention or overreach (Alimardani, 2021). It was only until the presidential election of 2009
did the fate of free and unrestricted internet access in Iran change for the worse. After winning
re-electron through widely suspected voter fraud the returning President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad sought to crack down on all anti-government, anti-Islamic and reformist/regime
change rhetoric being spread across the internet in Iran (Alimardani, 2021). What resulted was
a decade of off-and-on again bans and restrictions placed on Western media and internet
services such as Youtube, Twitter and Facebook (Alimardani, 2021). Since 2009, there seems
to have never been a time where Iranians once again enjoyed free and uncensored access to
the internet like they had previously. Yet somehow, the situation may have further worsened.

In July 2021, the government of Iran moved forward with a certain piece of troubling legislature.
When first made public it had been officially titled by Iranian parliament as the “Cyberspace
Users Rights Protection and Regulation of Key Online Services Bill” and was seen by many
observers as another effort to further censor and control internet access in Iran (Committee to
Protect Journalists, 2021). Concerns over access to the internet, journalism and certain
individual freedoms due to this bill were presented to the government but all proved futile. This
disturbing bill, roughly half a year later, is now well on its way to being passed into formal and
official Iranian law.

As of the time of writing the bill is now called “Regulatory System of Online Services Bill” but is
commonly referred to as the “Protection Bill”. Sadly, this new name did not entail a change in
structure as the complete nature of the bill is just as terrifying as it was originally predicted to be.
Firstly, the bill will prohibit and ban any foriegn internet service that does not maintain physical
representation in Iran itself (Article 19, 2021). What this does is essentially block American
internet services which cannot have an official presence in Iran due to US sanctions. The bill
also encourages Iranians to use locally provided internet services only and criminalises the
creation, distribution and usage of VPNs (Article 19, 2021). These two parts of the bill go
hand-in-hand. By making VPNs illegal the government is forcing Iranians to strictly use
Iran-based services if they want to access the internet. Yet perhaps the most frightening
features of the bill are the last two. The government will require Iranians to use their real, legal
identity when accessing the internet and most internet infrastructure will be overseen by the
Iranian Armed Forces (Article 19, 2021). With online anonymity completely extinguished the
public will be forced to censor themselves. This is especially true if they know the army is
constantly motoring what they say and do on the internet.

The “Protection Bill” has been condemned by many organisations, namely the Office of the
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). In an official statement
published at the beginning of March 2022, the OHCHR denounced the bill. The statement
claimed that the “Protection Bill” would isolate Iran from the global internet and cited concerns
about the restrictions on the free flow of information in and out of the country the bill would
inevitably cause (OHCHR, 2022). Both cases brought up by the statement are of equal
legitimate concern yet the bill is still set to pass in mid-March 2022 and the Iranian government
is seemingly unheeding to international criticism. The future of the internet and Iran is no doubt
in trouble.

The implications of the “Protection Bill” will be detrimental not only to many of the rights and
freedoms of Iranians but also the nature of the internet itself. For a while now it has been difficult
for Iranians to advocate for change over the internet but this bill will be the final nail in the coffin.
By pacifying Iranians internet access the government is actively destroying what the internet is
supposed to do. It is ultimately a service intended to connect people and help bring ideas
together for further development. Without unrestricted access to the internet none of this is
possible. The death of free internet access in Iran is not only a disgusting betrayal of human
rights but also an attack on the internet itself.

References:

  1. Alimardani, Masha. “New “Protection” Bill on Internet Freedom.” The Iran Primer. October 14, 2021. Updated February 23, 2022.
    https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2021/oct/14/internet-freedom-iran-and-new-protection-bill
  2. “Iran’s parliament moves forward with troubling bill to further restrict internet.” Committee to
    Protect Journalists. November 1, 2021.
    https://cpj.org/2021/11/iran-parliament-bill-restrict-internet/
  3. “Iran: Parliament’s “Protection Bill” will hand over complete control of the Internet to authorities.”
    Article 19. August 5, 2021.
    https://www.article19.org/resources/iran-parliaments-protection-bill-will-hand-over-compl
    ete-control-of-the-internet-to-authorities/
  4. “UN human rights experts urge Iran to abandon restrictive internet bill.” Office of the United
    Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. March 1, 2022.
    https://www.ohchr.org/SP/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=28176&LangI
    D=E

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