Iranian bill aims to reinforce “digital wall” and online censorship
REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS | September 24, 2020
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Iranian authorities to withdraw a draconian bill that would place social media under military control. Iran must respect its international obligations, RSF says.
Entitled “Organization of social media messaging services” and designed to consolidate the “digital wall” that already exists in Iran, the bill was submitted on 16 August to the Iranian parliament, which is expected to examine it soon.
According to the bill, “Internet entry and exit points and social media platform bandwidth going out of the country will be placed under the control of the headquarters of the armed forces and will be subject to the approval of the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader.”
The bill also provides for the creation of a board of governors consisting of representatives of the justice system, government and Revolutionary Guards to supervise platforms. Article 20 says that “all international and national messaging services must coordinate their activities according to Iranian laws, and the board must approve their operation.”
Failure to comply with the proposed law “will be punished by 90 days to six months in prison.” Those who produce or distribute virtual private networks (VPNs) – which are widely used to access banned websites although their sale is already banned – would risk up to two years in prison and heavy fines.
“This bill, which would place social media under total control, amounts to blocking access to information and denying the Iranian people the fundamental right to be informed, by offering them just a limited vision of reality via the previously established Halal Internet,” said Iris de Villars, the head of RSF’s Tech Desk.
“Iran’s Islamic Republic is a signatory to several international conventions and, as such, must adhere to its obligations, including the obligation to allow unrestricted access to the Internet. We call on the Iranian authorities to withdraw this bill, which poses a particular threat to freedom of expression.”
Although the Islamic Republic has been one of the most active countries at the World Summits on the Information Society (WSIS), and although it is a member of the International Telecommunication Union, UNESCO and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, it is on RSF’s list of the world’s leading digital predators.
Despite being banned, social media and apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Telegram play a major role in disseminating news and information in Iran. As well as blocking websites and messaging services, the authorities resort increasingly to Internet cuts to contain and suppress protests and block the flow of independent information regarded as “counter-revolutionary,” “subversive,” “anti-government propaganda,” “violations of national security” or “insulting to what is sacred.”
Access is not however restricted for senior state officials, who can have an Internet account and post freely – a situation regarded by RSF as flagrant “digital discrimination.”
Iran is ranked 173rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.