For Ali Hedieloo, who makes wooden furniture in the Iranian capital, Instagram is more than an excess of brilliant images. Like around 1 million other Iranians, this is how he finds customers, as the app has exploded into a massive e-commerce service in the sanctions-hit country.
But now the social media platform is under threat. Iran passed new government restrictions on Instagram and other apps last week, as diehard lawmakers agreed to discuss a bill that many say will undermine communication, destroy the means of livelihood and will open the door to banning major social media tools.
“Me and the people who work here risk losing our jobs if this bill goes into effect,” Hedieloo said from his dimly-lit workshop on the southern outskirts of Tehran, where he sandblasted wood and take photos. of offices decorated for advertising.
The bill has yet to be approved by the hard-line-dominated Iranian parliament, but it is already causing anxiety among young Iranians, avid social media users, online business owners and entrepreneurs. . Iran is a country with some 94 million Internet devices in use among its more than 80 million people. Almost 70% of the Iranian population uses smartphones.
More than 900,000 Iranians have signed a petition opposing the bill. The protest comes at a tense time for Iran, with Ebrahim Raisi, the former judicial leader and uncompromising protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, occupying the country’s highest civilian post this week. Journalists, civil society advocates and government critics have sounded the alarm about the possible increase in social repression once he takes office.
The bill, first proposed this spring by conservative lawmakers, requires major foreign tech giants like Facebook to register with the Iranian government and be subject to its surveillance and data ownership rules.
Companies that host unregistered social media apps in Iran would face sanctions, with authorities empowered to slow down access to companies’ services in order to force them to comply. Lawmakers have noted that crippling US sanctions against Iran make it impossible to register US tech companies in the country, thereby securing their ban.
The law would also criminalize the sale and distribution of virtual private networks and proxies – a key way for Iranians to access long-blocked social media platforms like Facebook, Telegram, Twitter and YouTube. It would also prevent government officials from managing accounts on banned social media platforms, which they now use to communicate with citizens and the press. Even the office of the Supreme Leader has a Twitter account with over 890,000 followers.
And finally, the bill removes control of the Internet from civilian government and places it under the control of the armed forces.
The aim of the bill, according to its authors, is to “protect users and their rights”. Government hardliners have long viewed social messaging and media services as part of a “soft war” waged by the West against the Islamic Republic. Over time, Iran has created what some have called the “halal” Internet – the version of the Internet locally controlled by the Islamic Republic to restrict what the public can see.
Supporters of the bill, such as die-hard lawmaker Ali Yazdikhah, hailed it as a step towards an independent Iranian Internet, where “people will start to prefer locally developed services” to foreign companies.
“There is no reason to worry, online businesses will stay and even we promise they will grow as well,” he said.
Internet advocates fear, however, that these measures could shift the country to an even more controlled model like China, whose “great firewall” blocks access to thousands of foreign websites and slows down others. .
Iranian Information Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, whom harsh justice summoned for prosecution earlier this year for his refusal to block Instagram, warned the bill would reduce access to information and would lead to the total ban on popular messaging apps. In a letter to Raisi last month, he urged the president-elect to reconsider the bill.
Facebook, owner of Instagram, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Social media is a hotly contested space in Iran, where the government exercises tight control over newspapers and remains the only entity allowed to broadcast on TV and radio. In recent years, anti-government protesters have used social media as a communication tool to mobilize and spread their message, prompting authorities to cripple internet services.
During the turmoil of fall 2019, for example, the government imposed a near-total internet blackout. Even scattered protests, such as the recent protests over water shortages in southwest Iran, have led to disruptions in mobile internet service.
But many ordinary Iranians, reeling from the harsh US sanctions that cut access to international banking systems and triggered skyrocketing inflation, remain more concerned about the potential financial fallout from the bill.
As the coronavirus ravages Iran, a growing number of people like Mr Hedieloo have turned to Instagram for a living – giving private lessons and selling homemade goods and art. Over 190,000 businesses have moved online in the past year.
While much about the fate of the bill remains uncertain, experts say it has already cooled commerce on Instagram, where once hopeful users now doubt they have a future on the app.
“Me and everyone who works in cyberspace is worried,” said Milad Nouri, software developer and technology analyst. “This includes a teenager playing online games, a YouTuber making money with his channel, an influencer, an Instagram-based online store.”
He added: “Everyone is kind of stressed out.”
This story was reported by The Associated Press.