Iran: Comprehensive Legal System for Internet and Cyberspace
The Iranian government has long sought to control the flow and consumption of information, especially given the social engineering component to the ideology at the heart of the Islamic Republic. Simply put, the Iranian leadership believes that control of the information and news available to the public will facilitate the regime’s goal to transform society by removing alternative social and political models in the public conscience. It is in this context that the growth of the internet and social media have challenged the Iranian government. The ability of Iranians to utilize virtual private networks (VPNs) to sidestep censorship or encrypted social media platforms to communicate and organize undercuts the perception of security among its top leaders.
In order to combat such new media independence, the Iranian government is seeking to implement a comprehensive media strategy that combines existing press regulations with new laws to govern new media. Recent efforts to require social media services to locate servers inside Iran appear to be part of this strategy. A website run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and dedicated to cyber issues called Gerdab.ir has now published the broader outlines of the strategy, a portion of which is excerpted here.
Of note is the justification that the government controls media because it is the government’s role to define the parameters of acceptable culture. In addition, the desire for a common law to govern social media reflects the notion that the reactive, patchwork approach to the phenomenon employed by the regime to date no longer serves regime interests.
Also important, the outline of the new legal framework appears to promote the Supreme Council of Cyberspace—appointed by the Supreme Leader—to the detriment of the Passive Defense Organization, the subdivision of the IRGC which traditionally oversaw Iranian cyber defense. This does not mean a disempowerment of that organization in terms of operations, but rather a diminishment of its influence in shaping policy. Indeed, the call for far greater internal monitoring likely means further empowerment and resourcing of the Passive Defense Organization.
Lastly, the proposal suggests that the Islamic Republic seeks to revive the idea of a national intranet, cut-off from the wider world. This proposal was popular in Iran a decade ago but was, at the time, not workable. It now appears, however, that the Islamic Republic might seek to use new technologies and new regulations such as the requirement that services base their equipment inside Iran in order to try again. That Iranian authorities can build upon lessons from similar Chinese, Cuban, and Vietnamese attempts make Iran’s forthcoming attempt to unplug itself from the rest of the world more serious than in the past.