Tehran, Iran – A special parliamentary committee has approved outlines of controversial legislation that many observers believe will lead to stricter restrictions on internet activity in Iran despite continued popular opposition.
The so-called “protection law” was first introduced three years ago, but lawmakers were forced to temporarily delay the legislation last July amid a backlash, with business groups and netizens warning it would harm freedoms online.
An online campaign was launched last year to oppose the bill and garnered more than 1.1 million signatures, becoming by far the most signature in the history of the website that hosted it.
Supporters of the bill assert that its main goal is to regulate cyberspace by providing necessary protection from harmful content and supporting local businesses.
The parliamentary committee set up to deal with the bill agreed the outlines of the legislation in a tumultuous session on Tuesday.
During the hearing, which was streamed online, a lawmaker said he had received calls and messages pressuring him to vote on the bill.
He criticized the deputy speaker of Parliament for allowing the committee’s session to take place, noting that Parliament’s directive states that all reviews should be halted when Parliament focuses on the budget bill.
But in the end, the bill’s outlines were approved in a session that lasted less than 20 minutes, and the 18 lawmakers who voted for it – against only one objection vote – agreed to quickly begin analyzing and approving the bill’s details.
Supporters of the legislation said they would like the bill to be finalized before the end of the current Iranian calendar year on March 20.
In the days leading up to the special committee hearing, social media users expressed their disapproval of the proposed legislation, with hashtags such as #IOpposeTheProtectionBill proliferating in Iran.
The special session comes after lawmakers were forced to temporarily suspend the bill in late July in the face of a growing public backlash.
Supporters invoked an article in the constitution that allows for some bills to be referred to a small, specialized committee with the power to ratify and implement legislation “experimentally”. The law can now be put in place for years using this method.
Representative Jalal Al-Rashidi, who cast the committee’s only opposition vote on Tuesday, wrote on Twitter afterwards that he had begun an effort to bring the bill back to a full parliamentary vote.
“So far 55 reputable representatives have signed the petition and more signatures are being collected,” he said Wrote.
What are the main interests?
The bill, which has been renamed several times since it was first introduced, has undergone some changes since last summer, but its critics say it still contains the same content related to different labels.
For example, phrases like “traffic restriction” that critics say can be used to enforce more bans and filters have been changed to “traffic policy enforcement”.
The content of the bill has not yet been finalized, but observers say that according to the latest published version, it has widened its scope.
While the previous version of the bill would only affect messaging services and a set of specific “essential services,” the latest version includes all platforms, businesses and online stores, observers say.
They warned that if implemented in its current form, it could disrupt some major international services and sites – such as Instagram – that are not yet blocked.
Most of the popular services like YouTube, Twitter, Telegram, Facebook and countless websites are filtered in Iran, but users circumvent the restrictions by using VPNs. However, the bill also aims to criminalize – by setting terms of imprisonment and fines – the distribution of VPNs.
Besides imposing more restrictions on foreign services, the legislation looks to provide funding and incentives for local businesses.
However, dozens of big local companies and tech unions have voiced opposition to her ideas, which they say could introduce a myriad of new permits and strict government controls, while stifling healthy competition.
With the legislation still being passed through Parliament, internet connections have slowed significantly in recent months, especially when linked to major global platforms.
The prominent daily Al Sharq newspaper have found In a two-month review of government-released data published last week, bandwidth on Instagram was significantly restricted every day from around 5 p.m.
Officials in President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration acknowledged the slow connection speed, but blamed it squarely on the administration of former President Hassan Rouhani, and on the growing burden of online education with schools closed due to the pandemic.
“The fixed internet infrastructure has not been developed in recent years and does not have the capacity to meet the needs of citizens today,” government spokesman Ali Bahaduri Jahromi said on Tuesday.
But MP Mojtaba Tavangar, who chairs parliament’s digital economy committee, blamed ICT Minister Issa Zaribour in a letter on Tuesday calling for more accountability.
“Mr. Honorable Minister, you are obligated to increase your internet speeds so as not to disrupt your internet!” he tweeted.