During his election campaign, Ebrahim Raisi vowed not to further restrict the Internet in Iran, where authorities already block tens of thousands of websites and regularly throttle or cut Internet connectivity.
But since the hard-line president assumed power in August 2021, experts say his administration has been secretly implementing a highly controversial draft bill designed to intensify online censorship and limit Internet access.
The Cyberspace Protection Bill would hand over control of Iran's Internet gateways to the armed forces and criminalize the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) that mask Internet users’ locations and enable them to view blocked websites.
Attempts to pass the bill in parliament, which is dominated by hard-liners, have been met with fierce criticism, public calls for its withdrawal, and warnings that it would stoke popular anger.
But this week, Iran’s Supreme Cyberspace Council, a body chaired by Raisi and created by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2012, appeared to sidestep the legislature and partially approve the draconian bill.
“The quiet implementation [of the bill] has been happening for almost a year,” Mahsa Alimardani a digital-rights researcher with the human rights organization ARTICLE 19, told RFE/RL.
Alimardani said the move by the Supreme Cyberspace Council is a “circumvention of the parliamentary process,” adding that the legislature “had lost the will to push the bill forward” because of the lack of political consensus.
In a directive issued on September 6, the Supreme Cyberspace Council announced that it has appointed members to the Supreme Regulatory Commission, an arm of the council that has been given broad powers to regulate the country’s cyberspace.
The 12-member commission includes representatives from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the police, the Intelligence Ministry, and the judiciary, according to the directive.
Observers inside the country noted that the directive issued this week is a key part of the unapproved Cyberspace Protection Bill. By issuing the directive, they said authorities had taken a major step in implementing the draft legislation.
Media outlets affiliated with Iran’s moderate and reformist political camps warned that the contentious bill was becoming a reality.
The reformist Shargh daily reported that the Supreme Cyberspace Council had adopted an "important part" of the draft Internet bill, saying it would further hinder the free flow of information and prevent the public exposure of government corruption.
The reformist Iranian daily Etemad said the Supreme Regulatory Commission would not include members of civil society and the private sector that are highly dependent on Internet access.
Hamed Bidi, a Tehran-based cyberexpert, said the move had set a “dangerous precedent” and should be challenged in court.
“The articles of the Cyberspace Protection Bill were previously declared to be contrary to the Constitution by the Parliament Research Center and many jurists opposed it,” Bidi told Tejaratnews.ir on September 7. “But now the Supreme Cyberspace Council has approved it while not paying any attention to the opinions of experts.”
In recent months, Internet users in Iran have reported slower than usual Internet connections, limited bandwidth, and widespread disruptions, which experts have said signal the government’s gradual implementation of the draft bill.
Around 84 percent of Iran’s 80-million population has access to the Internet, according to the World Bank.
Reza Ghorbani, a trade unionist in Tehran, was quoted by local media as saying that there had not been a single day without Internet disruptions in recent months.
Reza Alefnasab, another union in the capital, said millions of Iranians rely on the Internet to earn a living.
“For online businesses, the Internet is a lifeline, and any disruption causes irreparable damages,” Alefnasab was quoted by local media as saying.
Last month, authorities blocked cell phone users from receiving two-step verification codes on their devices in a move to further restrict access to social media and to filter access to information.
Social media users reported on August 17 that text messages containing login codes for the applications for Telegram, Twitter, and WhatsApp were filtered by cell phone operators in Iran and could not be received.
Most international social media platforms are already subject to blocking in Iran, and journalists and others rely on VPNs and other anti-filtering tools to access services like Telegram, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. Instagram remains accessible, although there are concerns that it will be blocked if the draft Internet bill is adopted.
Telegram has been filtered in Iran for four years and Twitter since 2008. But, in September last year, a report by the Iranian Statistics Center showed that 45 million Iranians are still members of Telegram and send 15 billion messages on this social network every day.
In recent years, Twitter has also been one of the main networks that citizens have used to publish social and political news in Iran as well as challenge the authorities.
In March, 55 human rights organizations, including ARTICLE 19, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, called on Iran to immediately withdraw the draft Cyberspace Protection Bill. If passed, the groups said it would “violate an array of human rights of people in Iran, including the right to freedom of expression and right to privacy.”
Also that month, UN human rights experts said the draft legislation would effectively isolate Iran from the global Internet.
"This bill represents a worrying step towards the consolidation of a digital wall in Iran,” they said. “It will further restrict information in an environment where the freedom of expression and other fundamental rights are already heavily curtailed.”