UN human rights experts warn about internet censorship in Iran

In a letter, three United Nations human rights experts warned about the implications of the Iranian regime’s internet censorship bill. The signatories, Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran; Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and Alexandra Xanthaki, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, warned that the new law would effectively isolate the country from the global internet.

“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.

The letter comes a week after a subcommittee in the Majlis (parliament) approved the Cyberspace Users Rights bill, which expands the existing restrictions on internet access. According to the draft text for the bill, the regime will block access to the few social media platforms that are still accessible in Iran, force technology companies to comply with the rules imposed by the Supreme Cyberspace Council, the body that oversees internet censorship, and require tech firms to cooperate with the regime in surveillance and censorship. The bill also criminalizes the use of virtual private networks (VPN).

Iranian authorities refused to reply to another letter that the human rights experts had written in 2021, raising alarm over the ramifications of blocking internet access in Iran.

In their new letter, the experts also warn about the economic impact of censoring internet in Iran. Millions of Iranians rely on internet and social media platform to run their businesses. The disruption of internet access will have a severe impact on their lives.

“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,” the experts write in their letter.

At the same time, the Majlis is examining another plan that will impose financial and jail punishments on users who “create content on banned social media networks.” The plan will be added as an amendment to a previous bill that bans the use of satellite TV networks.

All these efforts to restrict internet access to millions of Iranians have implications about which the regime’s own officials are warning . The regime’s main concern is how online platforms have become hubs for dissidents to join and organize and to inform the world about protests in Iran. This power was on full display during the 2019 uprising, when anti-regime protests spread to more than 190 cities in a few days. Only the brutal killing of protesters and a total internet blackout saved the regime from collapse. This issue has become so critical for the regime that supreme leader Ali Khamenei is personally overseeing it and his representatives are stressing the importance of restricting internet access in their Friday Prayer sermons.

And even though some officials are pointing out that the internet censorship bill has technical hurdles and blocking internet access will disrupt the country’s economy, the regime seems to be poised to proceed with its plans. And recent news indicates that the regime is throttling internet access and silently testing its internet censorship infrastructure.

But even the regime’s own experts and officials are warning that internet censorship will be a lot more complicated than perceived. As the regime has tried to block access to social media platforms, the Iranian people have also adapted their censorship circumvention tools. As one former regime official warned, “All these illogical internet restrictions are in effect becoming marketing efforts for the new generation of satellite-based internet services.”

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