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Iran’s Internet Protection Bill Part of Larger Strategy for Cyber Sovereignty

There is every indication that Iran’s government will pass “The Cyberspace Users’ Rights Protection Bill,” a piece of legislation that would introduce alarming changes to how the government can monitor and control Internet use.  Iran asserts that the bill is designed to enhance the security of Internet users, particularly during times of political tension where Iran’s cyberspace may be targeted by hostile outside influences. Per the bill in its current form, Iranian users would be disconnected from popular international applications such as Facebook, Gmail, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, and WhatsApp, among others. Some of the more globally used search engines like Google Chrome would also be restricted, as well. This is important as most Iranians use mobile devices for Internet access, and because these apps are designed for mobile use, it’s obvious why Tehran wants to be able to cut their use when desired. Tehran would also require these foreign social networks and service operators to register with a regulatory and supervisory body and open offices in Iran. Failure to do so would result in these companies’ inability to operate in Iran.

Iran has been interested in pursuing this course of action for a while, especially as nation states are becoming more brazen in using cyberspace as a tool to further their interests during periods of geopolitical tension. Recent history has shown states have used cyberspace to deliver punishment, steal money, steal sensitive data, and sow discord among targeted audiences depending on their intent and/or the larger geopolitical environment at the time. This is no better seen than in the current conflict in Ukraine where myriad state and nonstate actors are using cyberspace to conduct a variety of disruptive activities depending on their desired effect. Indeed, in the early stages of the conflict, Russia intimated that it might cut itself off from the global Internet in an attempt to reduce exposure to such attacks, a clear nod to its understanding of how savvy cyber actors operate. It looks like Tehran has been keeping a close eye on Moscow, and the push to enact the protection bill can be interpreted as Tehran’s attempt to follow in Moscow’s footsteps.  After all, if one of the most sophisticated cyber powers sees value in such a maneuver, then it would make sense for Iran to do the same.

Any substantial move to isolate itself from cyberspace would force Iranians to rely on a “National Internet,” an effort that China is helping Iran build as part of the cyber-cooperation agreement between the two countries. Iranian users would have access to monitored, internal services but would be unable to access the global Internet directly without approval.  The implementation of such a plan achieves two important government objectives: content control and maintaining a certain standard of society and cultural behaviors.  Over the past several years, Tehran has invested billions of dollars into this project, despite rebuke from the United Nations that views government Internet shutdowns an isolationist measure and a human rights violation.

Perhaps more telling is how Tehran has refined its approach in controlling the Internet, and by extension, the content and information produced and consumed in country. It appears that Tehran is going beyond standard censorship technologies and using legislation (i.e. the bill), alternative solutions (i.e. the National Internet), and even punitive economics to achieve its goals. According to Iranian press sources, Internet providers have increased the cost of their services between 60 and 100 percent, leading some to speculate that the subscription price hike is another way to reinforce the measures set forth by the Internet protection bill.

Authoritarian repression is nothing new for Iran. According to Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization tracking the expansion of freedom around the world, Iran ranked 14 of 100 as a non-free country for Internet access. Therefore, it is little surprise that the bill is being met with skepticism by much of the global community viewing the measure as another means for Iran to enforce strict social and cultural control while maintaining that the regime remains in power.  Human rights organizations have quickly condemned the bill, and governments like the United States have quickly denounced the measure as a blatant attempt to obstruct Iranians’ abilities to “exercise their right to freedom of expression and to freely exercise information.”

However, while such initiatives have worked to keep control, they have also come at a cost. Since its revolution in 1979, the theocracy has experienced several moments where dissent fomented resulting in several protests over the years including the 2017-2018 social protests against economic and political repression, and the 2019 Green Movement that saw Iran cut Internet access to its population in November of that year. Therefore with such a history in place, Iranians are already viewing this latest effort as yet another draconian measure that only increases its suspicion of the government that will no doubt encourage similar societal discontent.

Controlling what information can be created, processed, and accessed has been an essential tactic for any government wanting to censor content, as well as influence what content is delivered to its population. Any authoritarian regime will quickly cite how seditious information has been a catalyst for social discontent.  The Color Revolutions in the early 2000s and recent as influence operations in global elections have clearly demonstrated the potential of information to cause an effect against a target audience, particularly when it is magnified by Internet technologies. This fact is not lost on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter who have used arbitrarily restricted information under the premise of stopping the spread of “harmful” materials based on content and sender.  This has led to the censorship of political oppositionist speech while giving a voice to established dictators like the Ayatollah of Iran. While the U.S. government may not have officially mandated such restrictions, failure to condemn such actions gives the perception of tacit approval, raising the question by some if the United States is not inadvertently censoring free speech in the course of trying to squash everything “disinformation.” There is a difference between blatantly fake news based on fabricated stories and legitimate information being propagated by senders of questionable origin. Where to draw that line needs to be more rigorously explored particularly when it comes to matters of defining free speech.

It will be interesting to see how many more governments adopt similar tactics. Regardless of the true intent behind the Iran’s Internet protection bill, hostile cyber activities continue to promulgate with international efforts at trying to develop treaties or agreements repeatedly stalling or failing thereby perpetuating existing conditions.  The longer these problems persist, the more apt states are to take matters in their own hands if they want to increase their cybersecurity postures because a viable alternative is not available. And that is something China, Iran, and Russia can definitely get behind.

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Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello has nearly 20 years’ experience as a strategic cyber intelligence analyst, supporting US government civilian and military intelligence organizations, as well as the private sector. He has delivered cyber threat presentations to domestic and international audiences and has published extensively in such peer-reviewed journals as Parameters, Journal of Strategic Security, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and the Cyber Defense Review, among others. All comments and opinions expressed are solely his own.