Why Iran's new social media bill may threaten livelihoods

Iranian lawmakers agreed to discuss a bill that would restrict social media apps. Many fear the bill will disrupt communication and hurt entrepreneurs in Iran, where an estimated 1 million people use social media to run their businesses.

Vahid Salemi/AP
Carpenter Ali Hedieloo takes a photo of his furniture product to promote his workshop on social media in the southern suburbs of Tehran, Iran, July 30, 2021. During the pandemic, a growing number of people like Mr. Hedieloo have turned to Instagram to make a living.

For Ali Hedieloo, who makes wooden furniture in Iran's capital, Instagram is more than just a surfeit of glossy images. Like an estimated 1 million other Iranians, it’s how he finds customers, as the app has exploded into a massive e-commerce service in the sanctions-hit country.

But now, the social media platform has come under threat. Iran moved last week toward further government restrictions on Instagram and other apps, as hardline lawmakers agreed to discuss a bill that many fear will undermine communication, wipe out livelihoods and open the door to the banning of key social media tools.

“I and the people working here are likely to lose our jobs if this bill becomes effective," said Mr. Hedieloo from his dimly lit workshop in the southern suburbs of Tehran, where he sands bleached wood and snaps photos of adorned desks to advertise.

The bill has yet to be approved by Iran’s hard-liner dominated parliament, but it is already stirring anxiety among young Iranians, avid social media users, online business owners, and entrepreneurs. Iran is a country with some 94 million internet devices in use among its over 80 million people. Nearly 70% of Iran's population uses smartphones.

Over 900,000 Iranians have signed a petition opposing the bill. The protest comes at a tense time for Iran, with Ebrahim Raisi, the former judiciary chief and hardline protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, assuming the country’s highest civilian position this week. Journalists, civil society advocates, and government critics have raised the alarm about the possible increase of social repression once he takes office.

The draft legislation, first proposed this spring by conservative lawmakers, requires major foreign tech giants such as Facebook to register with the Iranian government and be subject to its oversight and data ownership rules.

Companies that host unregistered social media apps in Iran would risk penalties, with authorities empowered to slow down access to the companies' services as a way to force them to comply. Lawmakers have noted that the crippling U.S. sanctions on Iran make the registration of American tech companies in the country impossible, effectively ensuring their ban.

The law would also criminalize the sale and distribution of virtual private networks and proxies – a critical way Iranians access long-blocked social media platforms like Facebook, Telegram, Twitter, and YouTube. It also would bar government officials from running accounts on banned social media platforms, which they now use to communicate with citizens and the press. Even the office of the supreme leader has a Twitter account with over 890,000 followers.

And finally, the bill takes control of the internet away from the civilian government and places it under the armed forces.

The bill's goal, according to its authors, is to “protect users and their rights.” Hard-liners in the government have long viewed social messaging and media services as part of a “soft war” by the West against the Islamic Republic. Over time, Iran has created what some have called the “halal” internet – the Islamic Republic's own locally controlled version of the internet aimed at restricting what the public can see.

Supporters of the bill, such as hardline lawmaker Ali Yazdikhah, have hailed it as a step toward an independent Iranian internet, where “people will start to prefer locally developed services" over foreign companies.

“There is no reason to worry, online businesses will stay, and even we promise that they will expand too," he said.

Internet advocates, however, fear the measures will tip the country toward an even more tightly controlled model like China, whose “Great Firewall” blocks access to thousands of foreign websites and slows others.

Iran’s outgoing Information Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, whom the hardline judiciary summoned for prosecution earlier this year over his refusal to block Instagram, warned that the bill would curtail access to information and lead to full-blown bans of popular messaging apps. In a letter to Raisi last month, he urged the president-elect to reconsider the bill.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Social media is a highly contested space in Iran, where the government retains tight control over newspapers and remains the only entity allowed to broadcast on television and radio. Over recent years, anti-government protesters have used social media as a communication tool to mobilize and spread their message, prompting authorities to cripple internet services.

During the turmoil in the fall of 2019, for instance, the government imposed a near-complete internet blackout. Even scattered demonstrations, such as the recent protests over water shortages in Iran's southwest, have seen disruptions of mobile internet service.

But many ordinary Iranians, reeling from harsh American sanctions that have severed access to international banking systems and triggered runaway inflation, remain more preoccupied with the bill's potential financial fallout.

As the coronavirus ravages Iran, a growing number of people like Mr. Hedieloo have turned to Instagram to make a living – tutoring and selling homemade goods and art. Over 190,000 businesses moved online over the past year.

Although much about the bill's fate remains uncertain, experts say it already has sent a chill through commerce on Instagram, where once-hopeful users now doubt they have a future on the app.

“I and everyone else who is working in cyberspace is worried,” said Milad Nouri, a software developer and technology analyst. “This includes a teenager playing online games, a YouTuber making money from their channel, an influencer, an online shop based on Instagram.”

He added: "Everyone is somehow stressed."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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