Iran steps up for regulation of cyberspace

July 31, 2021 - 21:46

TEHRAN — In recent months, there have been talks on the parliament floor about regulating internet usage. This report examines the very core of the issue. Should governments regulate the use of the Internet and why?

According to the Oxford dictionary, the Internet is “a global computer network providing various information and communication facilities, consisting of interconnected networks using standardized communication protocols.” Building on this definition, it can be beneficial and harmful at the same time. 

As will be shown below, several countries have had to amend their laws to finesse the Internet to their interests.

France

France has attempted to regulate the Internet by using a mechanism established for policing the Minitel. It has proposed using inspectors of its famous Minitel to prowl the Minitel system inspecting content to ensure that information provider comply with the terms of their contract with France Télécom. If the approach is implemented, France will join countries in the Communist bloc to manually inspect Internet content as a matter of course.

Currently, however, the legal position is uncertain because the section of the French law that created the policing mechanism was declared unconstitutional for vagueness by the French Conseil Constitutionnel (Constitutional Council).

France's well-used Minitel system is regulated by the CST (le Conseil Supérieur de la Télématique). This body ensures that each content provider abides by the contract signed with France Télécom. The surveillance function is reportedly done by five to eight persons working in France Télécom.

In early 1996, the French government set up a commission to study regulating the Net. In the main, it recommended self-filtering as opposed to filtering at the source. Where necessary, it urged international cooperation in policing the Net. It also recommended regulations to enhance French presence and language on the Net.

The recommendations, however, were overshadowed by a proposal, called the Fillon amendment, named after the minister of telecommunications, François Fillon, to regulate the Internet. In style perhaps peculiar to France, regulation is through a “negative option”--IAPs do not have to abide by the code of conduct drawn up by the CST. Still, those who abide by the code will be absolved of legal liabilities for text, images and documents transmitted. As legal liabilities are uncertain, the implications of such a law are uncertain.

Internet organizations and professionals were scheduled to be members of the new CST. In its “Minitel” form, the CST has 20 members made up of magistrates, ministry officials, France Télécom representatives, Minitel providers, family, and consumer organizations. IAPs who do not respond to the blocklist of Internet sites or newsgroups will be held responsible for carrying it. It is this law that empowered the CST to censor that has been ruled unconstitutional.

In the wake of the promulgation of the law and the arrest of two managers of French IAPs, the French Association of Internet Professionals (AFPI), an ISP interest group, has decided to ban 18 obscene, pedophile, and neo-Nazi newsgroups from their servers. The AFPI, which has four members but claims to represent “more than 50 percent” of the French market, was afraid that IAPs could be held responsible for the content they transmit. A representative of the AFPI said that this ban could not be called censorship because “every subscriber is free to choose another Usenet server.”

France has proposed developing a code of conduct for the Internet. Users, however, have not been invited to participate.

South Korea

Probably the first country to have any Internet-specific censorship law is South Korea. In 1995, South Korea passed the Electronic Communication Business Law, which established the Information & Communication Ethics Office. The Office has broad powers to censor: its scope of coverage encompasses material on bulletin-board services (BBS), chat rooms, and other “public domain services” that “encroaches on public morals,” “may cause a loss of national sovereignty,” and “information that may harm youths’ character, emotions and the sense of value.”

Under the law, the Minister of Communication can order an information provider to delete and restrict the material. By one count, one of the three service providers for online and Internet content counted more than 220,000 deleted messages in the first eight months of 1996.

South Korea stands out for its unique regulation of political speech: contact with and even expressions of sympathy toward North Korea is forbidden. Prosecutors in South Korea have stated that stern measures would be taken against anybody trying to access North Korean home pages on the World Wide Web.

Germany

Germany recently drafted a “multimedia” law that, among other things, censors pornography and anti-Semitic propaganda. Acts already prohibited in Germany--such as denying the Holocaust, distributing hard-core pornography to minors, and conducting fraudulent business--will also be illegal in electronic form.

The German law puts responsibility for suspect content on “suppliers,” but this is not clearly defined. One interpretation of the new provision is that online services such as CompuServe and America Online could be held liable for legally questionable material after being warned that such material can be accessed through their systems if they have the technical means to block the material fail to do so.

The European Union

The European Commission has recommended a voluntary code of conduct on the Internet and suggests using labeling and filtering along PICS lines (Platform for Internet Content Selection). There are, however, at least two problems. First, the labeling and filtering systems are not compatible. Second, the European Union has to develop a framework to clarify the administrative rules and regulations applicable to access and content providers.

As discussed above, many countries in the world have felt the need to regulate Internet usage since it began to spread widely around the globe. Iran is no exception to this natural rule. 

Members of the parliament have proposed a bill to regulate the usage of the Internet in Iran. It is said that they have been working on this bill for over 15 months. 
Like all countries, Iran is not trying to block the Internet, as it is impossible to do so. What is merely discussed in the proposed bill is to boost localization of the Internet by providing equal opportunities for the domestic platforms to compete with the international ones.  

In a tweet posted on Friday, Parliament speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf explicitly said that widely used platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp would not be blocked.

The proposed bill is not suggesting the blockade of any social media platforms whatsoever. 

In recent years, popular social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter have been acting as a tool for the U.S. government, despite being an international platform. A case in point is the widespread censorship of the Iranian martyr, late Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Since his cowardly assassination in January 2020, Instagram has been deleting pictures and hashtags of Soleimani. Posting a picture of him regardless of political position could result in having an account deleted. Owned by Facebook, Instagram followed the policy of its father. Facebook permanently deleted the Tehran Times account after using a picture of martyr Soleimani along with his hashtag. This double standard comes amid claims of “free access to data” by free speech advocates in the West. 

Iran feels another need to regulate the Internet. Examples of misusing people’s protests by terrorist groups such as the Mujahedin-E-Khalgh organization (MEK) in the November 2019 protests show that Iran needs to regulate the use of the Internet to prevent spreading misinformation. The MEK and other foes have been trying hard in cyberspace to disrupt the lives of the Iranian people. During the recent protests in Khuzestan province over water shortage, MEK members spread misinformation and bold lies about the core of the problem, linking the protests to dissatisfaction with the establishment, which was false. This propaganda did not and will not end here. With every single demonstration, they try to spread controversy in Iran. 

Another reason for Iran to regulate the use of the Internet is that much personal data is in the hands of the social media platforms such as Instagram, which ironically do not even respect their users. On Wednesday, Iran’s chief justice, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, opened an Instagram account. On Thursday night, Instagram closed his account due to “unknown reasons.” The platform did not even consider its users worthy of an explanation. There is a possibility of espionage on Iranian users with the amount of data in hand. 

The bottom line is that the Internet’s regulation is not something strange and unknown. Yet, the mainstream media seems to portray that Iran will block the Internet in its entirety. It is needless to say that this is a baseless claim. 

SA/PA

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