The Iranian government is preparing to introduce a bill that will establish new restrictions on internet access in the Persian nation. In particular, the bill will curtail access to Instagram, Iran’s most popular social media site. This bill is the government’s latest effort to regulate online space. Over the past several years, the Iranian government has asserted more control over online information flows and platforms to quash dissent and control online speech. However, since millions of Iranians rely on Instagram for their livelihood, the bill is expected to have numerous negative economic consequences. Iran is already facing significant political, social, and economic uncertainty at the moment. As a result, the Iranian government should reconsider passing this bill.
The proposed bill, which first emerged in the spring, would require foreign technology companies to register with the Iranian government, comply with the regime’s data ownership rules, and consent to Iranian government oversight. Companies that fail to register with the government will face penalties, including potentially having their services slowed down. However, given ongoing U.S. sanctions against Iran, most foreign technology platforms will not be able to comply with these rules. As a result, the proposed legislation effectively bans these services. The bill would also ban the sale and distribution of virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxies, tools that are currently widely used to access social media platforms that the government has blocked. Additionally, it would prohibit government officials from operating accounts on banned social media platforms, which is notable considering even Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is active on several banned services. Conservative lawmakers who are allies of Iran’s new hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi, introduced the legislation.
If passed, and if the legislation results in restrictions on Instagram, it will have profound consequences for Iranians. Instagram is currently Iran’s most popular social media platform. It is also one of the only major social media services that are not currently blocked in Iran. In 2009, the government blocked access to Facebook and Twitter. In May 2018, the regime also blocked the Telegram messaging app, which had become a mainstay for online commerce. Although many of these apps are still accessible via VPN access, services such as Telegram have not recovered their popularity for commerce activities, and Iranians have instead chosen to rely on platforms like Instagram.
According to government statistics, approximately 1 million people rely on Instagram for their livelihood, and this figure is rapidly growing. Iran’s deputy minister of communication shared that an estimated 28% of Iranian Instagram pages are commerce-related. Other figures suggest that around 58% of online businesses in Iran are on Instagram, while 11% are on Telegram and 9% are on Facebook.
Instagram has particularly become an important economic driver during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, Iran’s economy was already fragile. In 2018, former U.S. President Donald Trump reintroduced sanctions on Iran after the 2015 nuclear deal fell apart. As a result, unemployment and inflation have risen markedly in the country. When the pandemic hit, Iran’s tattered economy was hit even harder. However, many businesses were able to stay afloat by transitioning their commerce activities online to services like Instagram. Many Iranians also rely on the platform as a marketplace for critical goods. The proposed legislation could therefore have significant economic ripple waves. Over the past few months, over 900,000 Iranians have signed a petition opposing the proposal.
The proposed legislation reflects the Iranian government’s efforts to assert control over information flows and speech in online spaces. Around the world, social media platforms have proven an effective method for citizen organizing and expression, playing a significant role in social movements, including the Egyptian revolution in 2011 and the Black Lives Matter movement over the past several years. Many people have used platforms like Instagram and Telegram to express their discontent against the Iranian regime in Iran. As a result, the government has blocked access and introduced numerous other restrictions to regulate online information flows and quash dissent. What’s more alarming is that some Instagram influencers have been censored or jailed by the country’s conservative government. When the government introduces restrictions on mainstream social media platforms, other Iran-based platforms take its place. For example, after banning Telegram, the government directed Iranians to its less-popular app, Soroush. These services are accountable to local Iranian laws and are easier for the regime to monitor and control, raising concerns over censorship and surveillance. As of now, the government has not suggested an alternative to the Instagram platform, but lawmakers have indicated they are seeking to fund one.
If Iran’s hard-line government succeeds in passing the legislation, Instagram could be blocked. This will have far-reaching consequences on the economy, freedom of speech, and information flows. The bill is the latest attempt by the regime to assert more control over the online space to quash dissent. However, given the economic and social fallout that could occur during an already tenuous financial and political time, the Iranian government should reconsider.