Tehran, Iran – A special parliamentary committee has approved the outline of controversial legislation that many observers believe will lead to stricter restrictions on online activities in Iran, despite ongoing public opposition.
The so-called “Protection Act” was first introduced three years ago, but lawmakers were forced to temporarily put the legislation aside last July amid a backlash, with business groups and internet users warning it would hurt online freedoms.
An online campaign launched last year to oppose the bill garnered more than 1.1 million signatures, becoming by far the most signed in the history of the website it proposed.
Proponents of the bill emphasize that its main purpose is to regulate cyberspace by providing necessary protection against harmful content and to support local businesses.
The parliamentary committee set up to consider the bill approved the general outline of the legislation in a frenetic session on Tuesday.
During the session, which was streamed online, a lawmaker said he had received phone calls and messages urging him to vote for the bill.
Another MP criticized the deputy speaker for allowing the committee session, noting that Parliament’s guidelines state that all reviews must be halted when Parliament focuses on the budget bill.
But in the end, the bill’s outline was approved in a session that lasted less than 20 minutes, and the 18 lawmakers who voted for it — against just one objectionable vote — agreed to quickly begin analyzing and ratifying the details of the bill. .
Those who support the legislation have said they want to finalize the bill before the end of the current Iranian calendar year on March 20.
In the days leading up to the special committee session, social media users expressed their rejection of the proposed legislation, with hashtags such as #IOPposeTheProtectionBill trending in Iran.
The special session comes after lawmakers were forced to temporarily put the bill on hold in late July due to growing public opposition.
Proponents invoked an article of the constitution that allows some bills to be deferred to a small, specialized committee that would have the power to ratify and “experimentally” conduct legislation. In this way, the bill could now be implemented for years to come.
Legislator Jalal Rashidi, who cast the lone opposition vote in the committee on Tuesday, wrote on Twitter afterwards that he had attempted to reduce the bill to a full parliamentary vote.
“So far 55 respected representatives have signed the petition and more signatures are being collected,” he said wrote†
What are the main concerns?
The bill, which has been renamed several times since its introduction, has seen some changes since last summer, but critics say it still contains the same content with different labeling.
For example, phrases like “traffic restriction” critics say could be used to enforce more bans, and filters have been changed to “traffic policy enforcement.”
The content of the bill has yet to be finalized, but observers say its scope has expanded according to the latest published version.
While the previous edition of the bill would only affect messaging services and a set of defined “basic services,” the newer edition includes all online platforms, businesses and stores, observers say.
They warned that if implemented in its current form, it could disrupt the few major international services and websites — such as Instagram — that have not yet been blocked.
The most popular services such as YouTube, Twitter, Telegram and Facebook, as well as countless websites, are filtered in Iran, but users circumvent restrictions by using virtual private networks (VPNs). However, the bill also aims to criminalize the distribution of VPNs – by imposing jail terms and fines.
In addition to introducing more restrictions on foreign services, the legislation aims to provide funding and incentives to local businesses.
However, dozens of major local companies and tech guilds have expressed opposition to the ideas, which they say could introduce a host of new permits and strict state controls, while stifling healthy competition.
As legislation continues to pass parliament, internet connections have slowed noticeably in recent months, especially with links to major global platforms.
Prominent newspaper Shargh Daily found it a review of two months of government-released data published last week found that Instagram’s bandwidth was significantly throttled from about 5 p.m. each day.
Officials in President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration have admitted that connection speeds have slowed, but they blame the government of former President Hassan Rouhani and the increasing burden on online education as schools close due to the pandemic.
“Fixed-line internet infrastructures have not been developed in recent years and do not have the capacity to meet the needs of today’s citizens,” government spokesman Ali Bahadori Jahromi said on Tuesday.
But lawmaker Mojtaba Tavangar, who heads the parliament’s digital economy committee, accused ICT minister Eisa Zarepour in a letter on Tuesday calling for greater accountability.
“Mr. Minister, you are obliged to increase internet speeds so as not to disrupt the internet!” he tweeted.