The clerical regime’s controls over online access, content, and communications have been steadily expanding since the inception of the World Wide Web. Globally popular information sources and social media sites have generally acquired their own popularity inside the Islamic Republic, but many such outlets have been subjected to formal bans by Iran’s dedicated cyber police authorities. Twitter and Facebook, for instance, have both been banned since the 2009 Green Movement, although many young Iranians continue to routinely access those social networks through virtual proxy networks.
According to the CHRI report, the prospective legislation strives to address this, among other familiar issues that the regime encounters in its efforts to enforce restrictions on foreign-based information and modes of communication. The “Managing Social Messengers Bill” reinforces the bans by criminalizing the mere act of accessing a “social messenger” that has not been state approved. In this sense, reading a single Facebook post could be grounds for a person to be imprisoned for up to two years.
Furthermore, the text of the bill reportedly designates a very broad range of activities as punishable offenses. The use of domestically made but independent messaging apps could be grounds for arrest on the basis of the fact that many of those apps include built-in circumvention tools. In other words, potential access to foreign information is criminalized right alongside actual access. This lack of discretion also applies to internet service providers, for whom the legislation specifies prospective jail time and fines for the crime of failing to block unapproved content, even by mistake.
The breadth of potential enforcement is made even more troubling by CHRI’s conclusion that while the text of the bill explicitly targets “social messengers,” its definition of that term is so broad as to potentially include the internet as a whole, and not just popular apps like Facebook, Twitter, and the much more recently banned Telegram.
Chapter two of the Managing Social Messengers Bill gives the General Staff of the Armed Forces absolute authority to “protect” the country’s “digital borders” – a term that can easily be interpreted as referring to the severance of Iranian information networks from the global internet.
Indeed, this is a goal that the Iranian regime has been pursuing for a number of years. Officials have repeatedly boasted of plans for a national information network, or “halalnet,” that would be entirely contained within the Islamic Republic and would only host content that has been approved by the government. The NIN launched on a limited basis in 2016, and CHRI described it as having “significantly enhanced the government’s ability to restrict, block and monitor internet use in Iran.”
Naturally, the pending legislation would move the country even further in that direction, effectively putting all internet users’ activities within easy reach of a designated military authority. Already, online communications are regularly used as grounds for prosecuting Iranian citizens for vague national security crimes such as “insulting the supreme leader” or “insulting the prophet [Muhammad].” This phenomenon would certainly grow very rapidly if all domestic use of the internet was mediated through the NIN or other easily monitored resources.
Fortunately for advocates of free speech and an open internet, the CHRI report notes that the Managing Social Messengers Bill has not yet been formally introduced to the parliament. But with the Iranian regime facing ongoing anti-government protests and general unrest, it is difficult to imagine that officials would not want to move quickly to exert control over the online tools that are widely credited with helping to organize public demonstrations and to disseminate information about them.
At the same time, these protests and the underlying social phenomena highlight the fact that Tehran’s hoped-for isolation of the Iranian internet from the global internet would only work in one direction. This is to say, while the regime is clearly pushing for more control over the information to which Iranian citizens have access, that same regime still wishes to reach international audiences with propaganda and disinformation regarding the Iranian Resistance movement.
The regime has somewhat effectively managed the promotion of that disinformation even in the presence of its earlier, more limited controls on domestic information networks. But the regime’s efforts would presumably be strengthened if it succeeded first in limiting challenges to its propaganda narratives from a reasonably informed Iranian public.
The potential consequences of this situation were roughly highlighted by UPI on Tuesday, in the form of an editorial by Struan Stevenson, a former member of the European Parliament and current coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. The article credits Iranian propaganda networks with a long history of finding “appeasers” and “useful idiots” in the global media to carry its talking points regarding the Iranian Resistance and the supposed absence of prospects for domestically driven change.
Naturally, the current unrest, which stems from a nationwide uprising in December and January, makes it more difficult to convince foreign observers that such change is out of reach. For that reason, Stevenson argues, the clerical regime is “desperate to cling to power” and so it has “ramped up repression and turned to the exploitation of cyberwarfare to spread propaganda, influence events, shape foreign perceptions and counter perceived threats.”
If this is true, it stands to reason that the regime will be similarly motivated to move toward the implementation of the plan it has already carefully laid out for the expansion of controls on the flow of information and dialogue throughout the Islamic Republic, as well as from the free world into the Iranian nation.