The current rulers in Tehran can’t claim any substantive achievements ahead of their counterparts in Beijing, but they do share the same paranoia about foreign influence. So, Iran is hoping to replicate China’s so-called Great Firewall of digital and legislative barriers, as much to pen its own people in as to bar outsiders.
The effort, begun under the previous administration, has been accelerated by the new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, who is cracking down against internal dissent while railing about the need to keep Iranian cyberspace safe from its enemies. Security agencies like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are especially keen on Chinese expertise in surveillance, both online and off.
By the World Bank’s reckoning, 84% of Iranians use the Internet. For several years now, the regime has blocked access to tens of thousands of websites, as well as social-media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Restrictions are routinely tightened during periods of heightened state repression, such as the violent crackdown against antigovernment protests in the fall of 2019.
But Iranians have learned to circumvent official obstacles by using satellite dishes and virtual private networks, or VPNs. This gives them access to information from abroad; perhaps more important, it allows them to communicate with each other and with the wider world in times of crisis, safe from the prying eyes of the state and its security agencies. That is how news and images of the 2019 crackdown, and more recent protests, got out.
Now the Raisi administration is moving aggressively to plug any holes in its digital barricades. With Chinese assistance, it is building a “national” Internet that will be cut off from most of the World Wide Web — a perversion of that most Persian of innovations, the walled garden. And the Iranian parliament is ginning up legislation to criminalize the use of VPNs, require IDs for web access and give security agencies complete control of the Internet.
Arguably the most consequential piece of legislation in the recent history of the Islamic Republic, the so-called Protection Bill, is currently being reviewed by a select committee of parliament, and is expected to be ratified in the spring. In addition to squeezing the limited space for free expression and political dissent, it will also have a chilling effect on Iran’s e-commerce sector, a rare bright spot in an economy straitjacketed by sanctions and battered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
When it is enacted, the legislation will effectively end the Instagram exception: It is the only social-media platform Iranians can use without a VPN. Even if Meta, the platform’s owner, was willing to comply with the provisions of the bill — foreign firms would have to collaborate with the state security agencies, for instance — it would be barred from doing so by U.S. economic sanctions.
Shutting down Instagram would be devastating for millions of people who depend on it for income. With no access to other large e-commerce networks and messaging apps, Iranian businesses use the platform to display their wares and to communicate with buyers and suppliers.
Holly Dagres, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who researches Iranian social-media habits, says it is also popular among “homemakers looking to become financially independent” to sell goods and services. The restrictions imposed during the pandemic have, if anything, deepened this dependence.
The Iranian authorities want all this commerce to move to homegrown apps and the national Internet, many of which are facsimiles of popular Western apps. Some businesses undoubtedly will. But many entrepreneurs and consumers will be slow to make the switch, whether for fear of surveillance or out of concern about the reliability of the apps and sites.
For the Raisi administration, however, an e-commerce slowdown may be an acceptable tradeoff for tighter control of cyberspace. With discontent growing among ordinary Iranians — witness the recent protests over water scarcity and teachers’ wages — the regime will want to build its walls high, thick and quick.