Using a VPN may be a crime under strict new Iran Internet law

Iran flag on a laptop screen
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Using a VPN may be a crime in Iran if a proposed new bill is passed into law.

Under Article 20 of the tabled Protection Bill, the development, reproduction or distribution of VPN and proxy service can result in up to two years of jail time. 

While according to Article 21, ISPs who allow unlicensed foreign services to access Iranian users' data can face up to 10 years of prison.   

On March 17, international human rights organization Article19 - together with more than 50 organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Access Now - called on Iranian authorities and those engaged in bilateral dialogue with the country to pressure the Iranian parliament to rescind the ‘User Protection Bill.’ 

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The letter reads: "We, the undersigned human rights and civil society organizations, are alarmed by the Iranian parliament’s move to ratify the general outlines of the draconian Regulatory System for Cyberspace Services Bill, previously known as the User Protection Bill.

"If passed, the Bill will violate an array of human rights of people in Iran, including the right to freedom of expression and right to privacy. We urge the Iranian authorities to immediately withdraw the Bill in its entirety." 

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According to human rights group, the bill will make Internet shutdowns and online censorship even easier to occur and less transparent. 

Foreign tech firms operating within Iran - like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter - will be forced to comply with all the Bill's provision, designate a representative within the country as well as provide the identity and history of their users’ activities upon government request. The platforms that will fail to comply with the government’s demands will be subjected to bandwidth throttling and bans. 

VPN company Surfshark's Head of PR Gabriele Racaityte said to be especially worried by provisions of the Bill that place Iran's gateways under the control of the Secure Gateway Taskforce. 

"This will mean that all information will fall under scrutinized monitoring and censorship of the local authorities, resulting in Iran's gradual shutdown from the global Internet. Such governmental moves parallel the situation currently developing in Russia," she explains. 

How the Protection Bill will affect Iranian society

It's been several years that Iranian authorities have used Internet shutdowns as a way to control the information flow within the country. Restrictions appear to be carried on especially during period of state repression, as happened during the violent crackdown on antigovernment protests in 2019. It seems that the Protection Bill will only worsen this issue.

Racaityte said: "Over the past seven years, we have recorded 14 internet disruptions in Iran, some lasting for days. Most of the outages have been related to political or societal events such as elections, referendums, and protests.

"Under the Bill Internet shutdowns, social media blockage, and online censorship will be even more easily implemented than it is now. Such a move might have immense implications for society as the authorities are already employing shutdowns on social media services and the internet to control public sentiment and freedom of speech."

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Similarly to the Great Firewall of China, the censorship machine works alongside its National Information Network - in basic terms, the Iranian government owns a version of the Internet. Here, it can track down all content exchanged among users. Plus, all information coming from outside the network must be approved by Iranian authorities. 

Also the economy is likely to suffer from these bans. Let's take Instagram for example. As Iranians don't have access to larger e-commerce networks, the photo-led platform is largely used among businesses within the country

Under this light, citizens have learned to circumvent these obstacles. VPNs are one of the favorite ways for bypassing websites and social media bans among Iranians. That's why the new criminal charges regulating the use of VPNs could have a chilling effect in those trying to beat national censorship. 

Despite this, Surfshark data shows that the country's overall numbers of downloads of paid VPNs are comparatively low compared to the global average. "Our sales doubled after the move to ratify the Internet bill on February 22, but the overall numbers remain on the lower end," said Racaityte.

This could be caused, as described by PureVPN, by an already complex situation for using VPNs within the country right now. They said: "The internet is slow in Iran and the app stores are mostly blocked so it is difficult for users to download a VPN app once they are in the country. We recommend manual configuration of services via the SSTP protocol for users in Iran." 

While the Bill's trial has been delayed, it can still become law

The ratification of some central elements of the Protection Bill, that was supposed to start on February 22, have been annulled amid further opposition within the Iranian Parliament. 

As Article19 reported, "150 Iranian parliamentarians had signed a letter to parliament’s board of presidents requesting the Bill to be considered and voted on in a general session of parliament rather than in a special committee."

Despite the delay, the execution of the bill seems still to be sit among Iran government's agenda.

Chiara Castro
Senior Staff Writer

Chiara is a multimedia journalist committed to covering stories to help promote the rights and denounce the abuses of the digital side of life—wherever cybersecurity, markets and politics tangle up. She mainly writes news, interviews and analysis on data privacy, online censorship, digital rights, cybercrime, and security software, with a special focus on VPNs, for TechRadar Pro, TechRadar and Tom’s Guide. Got a story, tip-off or something tech-interesting to say? Reach out to chiara.castro@futurenet.com