Ali Hedieloo is a 40-year old woodworker in Tehran. Instagram is more than a collection of beautiful images. It’s how Ali Hedieloo finds customers. The app has grown to become a huge e-commerce platform in Iran, where it is used by an estimated 1,000,000 Iranians.
The social media platform is now under threat. Iran moved last week towards further restrictions on Instagram and other apps by hardline lawmakers. Many fear that the bill will hamper communication, destroy livelihoods, and lead to the banning key social media tools.
Hedieloo said, “I and the people here are likely to lose my jobs if this bill is effective.” Hedieloo spoke from his dimly lit workshop located in the southern suburbs Tehran. He sands bleached wooden and takes photos of desks that he wants to promote.
Although the bill is yet to be approved in Iran’s hardliner-dominated parliament, it is already causing anxiety among young Iranians who are avid social media users, entrepreneurs, and online business owners. Iran has over 94 million internet users. Nearly 70% Iranians use smartphones.
A petition was signed by over 900,000. The protest comes at a tense time for Iran, with Ebrahim Raisi, the former judiciary chief and hard-line protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, assuming the country’s highest civilian position this week. Journalists, civil society activists and government critics raised concerns about possible social repression after he assumes office.
Conservative lawmakers first proposed the legislation this spring. It requires foreign tech giants like Facebook to register with Iran and to be subject to its surveillance and data ownership rules.
Companies hosting unregistered social networking apps in Iran could face penalties. Authorities would be empowered to block access to their services to make it more difficult for them to comply. Lawmakers noted that Iran’s crippling U.S. sanctions make it impossible to register American tech companies there, effectively making their ban a reality.
It would also make it illegal to distribute virtual private networks or proxy servers — which is a crucial way Iranians can access social media platforms such as Facebook, Telegram and Twitter that have been blocked for years. It would also prohibit government officials from creating accounts on social media platforms that are banned. These social media platforms are used by citizens and the media. The Twitter account of the supreme leader boasts over 890,000.
Finally, the bill gives control over the internet to the armed forces and takes it away from the civilian government.
According to the bill’s authors, the goal is to “protect users” and “protect their rights.” For decades, hardliners in government have viewed social messaging as part of a “soft warfare” by the West against Iran. Over time, Iran has created what some have called the “halal” internet — the Islamic Republic’s own locally controlled version of the internet aimed at restricting what the public can see.
Ali Yazdikhah (hardline lawmaker) has praised the bill as a step towards an independent Iranian internet. He said that “people will begin to prefer locally developed services over foreign companies.”
He stated that there is no reason for concern, online businesses will continue to exist, and even we can promise that they will grow.
Internet advocates fear that the measures could lead to China becoming a more controlled country, as China’s “Great Firewall” prevents access to thousands of websites from being accessed and slows down others.
Iran’s outgoing Information Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, whom the hard-line judiciary summoned for prosecution earlier this year over his refusal to block Instagram, warned that the bill would curtail access to information and lead to full-blown bans of popular messaging apps. He wrote to Raisi last month urging him to reconsider the bill.
Facebook, the owner of Instagram, didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment.
Iran’s social media space is highly contentious. The government has tight control over Iran’s newspapers, and the government remains the only entity that can broadcast on radio and television. Social media has been used by anti-government protestors to mobilize and spread their messages in recent years. Authorities have since had to shut down internet services.
During the turmoil in the fall of 2019, for instance, the government imposed a near-complete internet blackout. Even scattered demonstrations, such as the recent protests over water shortages in Iran’s southwest, have seen disruptions of mobile internet service.
Many Iranians are still worried about the potential financial consequences of harsh American sanctions.
Hedieloo is one of many people who have taken to Instagram to make a living tutoring or selling handmade goods as the coronavirus continues to ravage Iran. In the last year, more than 190,000. businesses have gone online.
While much is still unknown about the bill’s fate, experts claim it has already sent chills through commerce on Instagram. Once hopeful users now doubt their future on the app.
Milad Nouri, a technology analyst and software developer, said that “I and everybody else working in cyberspace are worried.” “This includes a teenager playing online gaming, a YouTuber making a living from their channel, an influencer and an online shop that is based on Instagram.”
He said, “Everyone is somehow stressed.”