A Heavily Surveilled “National Internet”: The Link Between Iran and China

September 1, 2021

On June 18, 2021, Ebrahim Raisi, the former judiciary chief widely accused of human rights abuses, was elected president of Iran after a controversial election marred by disqualifications and accusations of being a sham. A noted principlist, Raisi’s administration is expected to further curtail the limited freedom that Iranian citizens possess, in particular, internet freedom.

Iran has a long record of using internet throttling and shutdowns during periods of unrest. During the current, ongoing protests in Khuzestan over water shortage, the government had disrupted mobile internet services, resulting in “a near-total internet shutdown that is likely to limit the public’s ability to express political discontent or communicate with each other and the outside world.” This was similar to the near total internet shutdown in Sistan and Baluchistan in February this year, and the national six-day long internet blackout during the 2019 protests.

However, on July 28, 2021, the Iranian parliament introduced a highly controversial internet restriction bill that would further restrict internet freedom beyond blocking foreign websites, and throttling/shutting down internet service. Although the bill had went through a few drafts, and is likely to be further revised, there are five common themes present in the legislation:

  1. Valid Identity: Online interactions and activities are required to be traceable to an identity, and that companies are to keep and provide users’ information to the government upon request
  2. Layered Filtering: Different degrees of free internet access is to be based on a tier system, depending on the profession and personal status of the user
  3. Forced localization of data: Currently, some domestic Iranian internet services utilize foreign infrastructure that require sharing data outside of Iran. The bill would call for the localization of all Iranian data
  4. Forced Compliance of Foreign Companies: International companies, such as Google, would be asked to comply with Iranian laws, or be banned from operating in Iran
  5. Greater Military Control: Instead of the civilian government, the military would play a greater role in cybersecurity

These developments, though, are not limited to Iran, but rather part of a wider, international trend towards “national internet” and restricting free internet access. Much of the bill’s provisions have already been implemented in other authoritarian countries such as China and Vietnam. In fact, in 2020, Iran discussed a potential 25 year partnership with China to develop the infrastructure necessary to build their national internet. Despite facing heavy opposition domestically, parts of these worrying developments have already been implemented, and the bill is expected to resurface in the parliament during legislative sessions later this year.

At NetFreedom Pioneers we continue to work with our partners in Iran and all over the world to ensure that people are able to receive safe, uncensored internet content in face of increased government repression. Toosheh, our file-casting technology service, delivers curated content daily securely and reliably, in collaboration with our partners, including BBC Persian and Zamaneh Media. Since the files are not transmitted via the internet, our service is able to provide new digital packages daily, despite internet shutdowns or restrictions. In addition, in collaboration with VPN partners, our packages also include free VPN software, ensuring that Iranian users can continue to access the internet safely, anonymously and without restrictions.

As internet freedom comes under siege all over the world, our work to provide free and unrestricted information is more crucial than ever. To learn more, please contact us.

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