The internet has become a formidable weapon in the Iranian people’s fight for freedom. (IranWire)

July 30, 2021

On Wednesday, July 28, Iran’s conservative-dominated parliament voted to implement a new law that could further restrict Iranians’ access to the internet and social media.

The hugely controversial and surreally-named “Bill for the Protection of Cyberspace Users” allows the Iranian armed forces to more stringently monitor internet traffic into and out of Iran. It also states that foreign service providers must register in Iran and observe its internal regulations in order to stay connected.

Even global services like Google and Instagram could be blocked in Iran if they do not meet the regime’s own unclear criteria. The bill has attracted condemnation from MPs and industry experts alike, including a 47-strong consortium of Iranian digital businesses, the Tehran ICT Guild and the Iranian E-Commerce Association.

The fight is not quite over yet, though. Perhaps due to the bill’s known level of divisiveness, the Iranian parliament is set to invoke Article 85 of the Iranian Constitution, which allows the power to enact certain laws to be delegated to an internal committee. If passed, it would then be in place on a temporarily trial basis only before being referred back to parliament.

MPs have affirmed that if the Bill is implemented on a trial basis, it will be in place for three to five years before going back to the legislature. Even if it were then approved on a permanent basis it would also need to be ratified by the Guardian Council.

This latest violation of Iranian digital rights will therefore be subject to the caprices of an enormous number of different politicians, elected and unelected, who may change over the years. But what do other Iranians think of the proposal? IranWire’s citizen journalist in Tehran spoke to fellow netizens to find out.

At the time of writing, an e-petition against the so-called Bill for the Protection of Cyberspace Users had gathered 744,000 signatures and counting. In a letter to Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, signatories warned the proposed legislation would only add to Iranians’ financial hardship.

“Restrictive measures, and previous misguided policies including the failed filtering of Telegram and Clubhouse,” they said, “and the failure of previous projects (at exorbitant costs) such as national messengers, national search engines and national operating systems, have repeatedly shown how accurate the predictions of compassionate experts were.”

Calling the bill “harmful and unprofessional”, the letter went on: “We ask you to respect the rights of the Iranian people and support their livelihoods, instead of creating these new barriers to businesses large and small.”

Apathy and Anger in Iranian Cyberspace

One of the signatories is Somayeh, who promoted the campaign to her friends on WhatsApp. A lot of people, she says, didn’t bother to sign it because they have lost hope in being listened to by MPs. Even those that did join the call expressed misgivings: “A friend of mine wrote that she had signed, but then asked, ‘Do they really care about these things?’.”

Somayeh told her friend it was still important for MPs to know how much opposition there is to such measures. “I know it might not change the passage of the bill, but it could make them realize how much it’s upset people.”

But she adds, forlornly: “My friends said other things, for which I had no answer. One of them wrote: ‘I’ve really lost all hope. Suppose they realize that all Iranians are against them. If they don’t even care about the lack of water, how are they supposed to care about people’s lack of Instagram?’.

“Another wrote: ‘I’ve taken part in every campaign and I’ve signed every petition. Show me an example of a successful one.’”

Another of the 744,000 signatories is Mohammad, a translator. He shared the petition on his Instagram page and encouraged his followers to sign up. The post was seen by at least 60 people, he said, of whom 33 reacted to it in some way. But 15 of those people had just posted swear words, while another five said it was pointless. In the end, just 13 agreed to sign.

Interestingly, though, he said that of those 13 still willing to bother to take a stand, four had posted a variation on the same sentence: “Our anger is greater than their power”.

This phrase is thought to have been coined by Setareh Maleki, a Tehran-based actress in the theatre, in a video that was widely shared in Iranian cyberspace over the past week. Maleki’s father recently died of Covid-19. In the video, she appeared sat next to his grave, outspokenly criticizing the Iranian regime’s policy failings and suppression of recent protests. “Fear us,” she said on camera. “Our wrath is greater than your power.”

Iranians Fear Economic Consequences of New Internet Censorship Bill

Social activist Zeinab told IranWire that recently, amid the online tumult over the proposed bill, a friend had posted a message on an Instagram story that made her stop and think. “How long, and until when, must we be oppressed and endure?” the friend had written. “Just set us up a crematorium and a labor camp.”

It put her in mind, she says, of a stanza from the medieval Persian poet Hafiz’s Ghazal No.94: “Every direction I went, increased nought but my terror.”

“My friend’s right,” Zeinab reflects. “Coronavirus and inflation, water shortages and repressing protesters, and now the shutdown of the internet. What else they can do to us?”

Another Iranian opposed to the bill, Sarah, runs a small business on Instagram. “I dread to think how I’ll pay the rent if they actually implement this bill,” she said. “How am I supposed to feed my children?”

She’s far from the only one worried about the financial knock-on effects of this bill being passed. It could see Iranians lose access to Google and Amazon as well as countless other important platforms. An economist based in Iran, who asked not to be named, told IranWire there are at least 2 million small firms in Iran that rely on the internet to trade.

“In recent years,” he said, “especially since the outbreak of coronavirus saw so many jobs decimated, start-ups in cyberspace have made the conditions a little more bearable for many people hoping to improve their lot.”

He added that he had seen many single mothers, and female heads of households, earning a crust by selling home-made pickles, vegetables and embroidery online. He isn’t sure what will happen to them if the new law is implemented: “They can’t rent a physical shop to sell goods in person. With the loss of the world wide web, they’ll lose their source of income.”

Other Iranian economists have put their names above the parapet to speak out against the new bill. Siamak Ghasemi, founder of the Bamdad Institute for Economic Studies, wrote on Instagram: “When we talk about Instagram in Iran, we’re also talking about one and a half to two million jobs in retail and small transactions. Can Iran’s economy afford to put another two million people out of work? Do you know what it takes to create two million jobs?”

As Iranian MPs debated the bill on Wednesday, a browse through comments on the e-petition gave a good idea of the general mood among Iranian internet users. “We sign to let them know how many people hate them,” one person wrote.

But another took a more hopeful tone, echoing the sentiments of Mohammad the translator’s friends. “We are countless,” they wrote. “We, whose anger is now greater than your power.”

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.