UN human rights experts urge Iran to abandon restrictive internet bill


UN human rights experts have called on the Government of Iran to abandon its efforts to enact a new law that would effectively isolate the country from the global internet.

The Iranian Parliament may soon ratify the “Regulatory System for Online Services Bill” – more commonly referred to as the “User Protection Bill” – and adopt the legislation in mid-March by invoking a constitutional provision that permits the regular parliamentary process to be circumvented.

Initially proposed in 2018, the bill grants the Government and army extensive control over infrastructure that connects Iran to the global internet. If enacted, the legislation will force technology companies to “follow state guidelines” or be subject to bandwidth throttling and blocking.

Among other issues, the bill will likely block any remaining websites and platforms run by foreign companies still operating in Iran, require people to use IDs to access the internet and criminalize the distribution and sale of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). It will also require social media platforms to cooperate with the Government in surveillance and censorship.

“This bill represents a worrying step towards the consolidation of a digital wall in Iran. It will further restrict information in an environment where the freedom of expression and other fundamental rights are already heavily curtailed. It also interferes with the right of individuals to participate in cultural life and have access to cultural resources,” the experts said.

In November 2019, Government efforts to control the online space culminated in a total internet shutdown in Iran for one week during nationwide protests. At the time, UN experts raised concerns that the information blackout following the shutdown had facilitated human rights violations, including excessive use of force by security forces against protesters, resulting in the deaths of at least 324 people. Shutdowns and disruption of internet services have since continued, particularly in connection with protests.

Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, Telegram and Signal are among the platforms banned in Iran. Additionally, the Government uses a web filtering tool known as SmartFilter to block international news media and websites.

“We have previously raised our concerns about the bill in an effort to have a dialogue with the authorities on this issue. We regret that there has been no response to our letter and our recommendations on the bill have not been considered,” the experts said.

The experts noted that the bill would not only restrict information but would also hamper business operations and adversely impact sectors reliant on information technology, including science, education and medicine.

“The Government has repeatedly raised concerns that these sectors suffer from the impact of sanctions, by limiting Iran’s access to information technology and international scientific databases. It is a sad irony that the Government itself takes measures that would limit trade and scientific and educational exchange,” the experts said.

“It is beyond dispute today that economic and social development of societies rest on access to information and an enabling environment for the exchange of ideas and cultural resources. We call on the Islamic Republic of Iran to re-consider this bill.”

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