A group of 40 Iranian lawmakers have put a controversial bill before parliament that could lead to tougher online censorship by giving armed forces, including the infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), control of the country’s internet gateways .
The bill also provides for the creation of a body to monitor the social media platforms and deal with violations. The board will include representatives from the judiciary and government, as well as the dreaded IRGC intelligence unit, which has arrested numerous activists, journalists, environmentalists, dual nationals and others in recent years – including a Facebook engineer recently speaking about his arrest and pressure from the guards .
“This will have an immediate impact on the low level of internet freedom in Iran and the further militarization of this area,” Fereidoon Bashar, managing director of the Toronto-based technology group ASL19, which helps Iranians bypass internet filtering, told RFE / RL.
The proposal also provides for prison sentences of up to two years and fines for those who – without an official license – manufacture or distribute proxy tools to circumvent strict government censorship of the internet, including virtual private networks (VPN) that many use prohibited to access access websites.
The bill, if passed, could also result in the ban on the few social media platforms that have not yet been filtered out in Iran.
Iran has already blocked most social media websites and tools, including Twitter, Facebook and the popular messaging application Telegram, which was first filtered in 2018 after massive street protests after authorities claimed the app threatened national security.
However, many Iranians continue to use banned platforms, including Telegram.
Instagram stays unfiltered when hardliners ask to restrict it.
The photo-sharing site was briefly filtered along with Telegram in January 2018 amid protests against the facility in the country. The secure messaging application Whatsapp, which grew in popularity after Telegram was blocked, was not blocked either.
The draft proposal states that foreign social media platforms can only operate in the country if an Iranian company has been appointed as the legal representative and operates under Iranian law.
It also states that the activities of “powerful” foreign and domestic apps that Iranians are reluctant to use must be approved and monitored by the board of directors.
“Otherwise, their activities in the country are considered illegal. The Ministry of Communications must block access to them, ”reads a text of the proposal published online.
“If the new law is passed, it will undoubtedly lead to the censorship of Instagram and WhatsApp and pave the way for institutionalized surveillance and tracking of internet users,” said Bashar of ASL19.
“The current cybercrime law doesn’t mention VPNs at all, and it’s not clear whether distributing or using evasion tools and VPNs is illegal,” he added.
The bill requires authentication of all internet users and states that the government should allow access to user data in some cases, including crimes against internal and external security, death threats and rape.
The proposal has angered many Iranians who use social media platforms for unfiltered news, information, entertainment, relatively open debate and sharing of ideas. It has also angered those who make a living from it, including on the hugely popular Instagram where citizens offer services or do business.
In recent weeks, many Iranians have used social media to express their opposition to the death sentences for three protesters and to discuss sexual misconduct against women and rape.
“If foreign social media is so bad and damaging and VPNs shouldn’t be used, why do many of the lawmakers who signed this bill have accounts on Twitter that are alien that require a VPN to access,” according to news site Salameno .ir asked.
The Iranian media reported that 28 of the 40 lawmakers who signed the proposal have accounts on Twitter, which is blocked for ordinary citizens in the country, despite being used by high-ranking state officials like Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Use it pretty often to get your guidelines and messages across.
Some lawmakers have publicly criticized the proposal, which has been in the works since 2018, suggesting it is unlikely to endorse it.
“I am against the plan to block all foreign messengers,” said lawmaker Ardeshir Motahari tweeted. “This proposal is not a priority for the country. It will worsen the current bad life situation. “
However, lawmaker Ali Khezrian, who backed the bill, said that “implies” that the bill will lead to a ban on all social media is a “psychological operation,” adding that all countries have laws to protect their citizens in cyberspace push through.
“Cyberspace offers great opportunity and opportunity for people, but it can also be seen as a threat,” he said.
Iran is blocking tens of thousands of websites, including news sites and opposition platforms.
The country often throttles the internet and disrupts proxy tools in sensitive political times, even during major protests.
In November 2019, amid violent street demonstrations over a sudden surge in gas prices, Iran Shut down the internet and around 57 million people – almost 70 percent of the population – have not been online for several days.
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