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Fears of new internet restrictions in Iran (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)
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A new bill in Iran that is expected to be debated by parliament has raised fears of new restrictions on the internet and economic restrictions on craftsmen and businesses who use applications such as Instagram to promote their activities.

Conservative lawmakers last week began drafting a law that would increase government control over the internet and require major foreign tech companies such as Facebook to register with the Iranian government and submit to censorship and data ownership rules.

Companies hosting social media apps that are not registered in Iran could face sanctions, with authorities potentially slowing down access to the companies’ services as a way to force them to comply with the rules.

The proposal would criminalize the sale and distribution of virtual private networks, which Iranians heavily rely on to access banned social media platforms such as Facebook, Telegram, Twitter and YouTube.

There is also a proposal to prevent government officials from managing accounts on banned social media platforms, which they now use to communicate with citizens and the press, knowing that the country’s leader, Ali Khamenei, himself has a Twitter account.

The project transfers control of the Internet from the civilian government and brings it under the control of the armed forces.

The Associated Press said the project “has alarmed young Iranians, avid social media users, online business owners, and entrepreneurs.”

In Iran, about 94 million Internet service devices are used, while there are 80 million people living inside the country, while about 70 percent of the population uses smartphones.

Anti-government protesters use social media to communicate, mobilize and spread their messages, often leading authorities to paralyze internet services, such as during the unrest in the fall of 2019 when the government imposed a near-total internet blackout.

Even in sporadic demonstrations, such as the recent protests over water shortages in the southwest of the country, mobile internet service disruptions have also occurred.

Many Iranians rely on apps such as Instagram for their livelihood, through activities such as teaching, selling goods, and homemade arts.

Among them is Ali Hadilow, 40, who said from his workshop in the southern suburbs of Tehran, “I and the workers here may lose our jobs if this law becomes enforceable.”

Milad Nouri, a software developer and technical analyst, said there is a concern among cyberspace workers who use the Internet to profit, such as YouTube channel owners, virtual store owners and influencers.

This trend comes “at a tense time for Iran”, where Ebrahim Raisi, the former chief justice and hard-line lawyer, has assumed the highest civilian position, and journalists, human rights activists and opponents have sounded the alarm about the risk of increasing repression once he takes office.

Supporters of the bill, such as hardline lawmaker Aliezdekhah, praised the proposal and said it was a “step towards an independent Iranian internet, and people will start preferring locally developed services” over foreign companies. “Don’t worry, the business will remain online, and even we promise it will expand,” he said.

However, internet advocates fear the measures will steer the country toward a tighter censorship model like China, which blocks access to thousands of foreign websites and slows others down.

Iran’s outgoing Information Technology Minister, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, warned that the project would limit access to information and lead to a blanket ban of popular messaging apps. And he called in a letter to Raisi to reconsider the bill.

The Associated Press says more than 900,000 Iranians have signed a petition opposing the proposal.

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