Iranian Internet Law
The country of Iran, with 70 million resident is a place with a strong education history and boasts a notable cultural heritage. This is in stark contrast to recent images of the fundamentalism the religious establishment has imposed since the Shah was toppled in the late 1970′s. There is no particular freedom of speech in Iran, and the country is regarded as having one of the most repressive press monitoring bureaus in the world. This essay details the law of the Internet in this oil-rich, mountainous state that was until modern times known as Persia.
These questions will be answered: Is the Internet Legal in Iran?, What Law Governs the Internet in Iran?, What About Opening a Blog & Blogger’s Rights?, What Laws or Bodies Govern Internet Crimes in Iran?, and What Punishments are Listed for Breaking the Cyber Crimes Law?
Is the Internet Legal in Iran?
Yes. The first Internet Service Providers (“ISP’s”) began operating in Iran in 1994. A 2001 law stated that Iran was to control all ISP’s. The main state media entity is the Telecommunications Company of Iran (“TCI”). The Data Communication Company of Iran (“DCI”) is the chief ISP, the provider by which most other ISP’s get their Internet connectivity. The DCI is a subsidiary of TCI, and run by the newly re-named Ministry for Information and Communication Technology (“ICT”), which is responsible for TCI policy.
All private ISPs must be vetted by both DCI and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. ISPs must install filters for Web sites and e-mail. The TCI in 2001 issued regulations requiring ISPs to filter all materials presumed immoral or contrary to state interests. The goal of filtering is to block all access to “non-Islamic” sites. Blogging has grown quickly in the country, which the Government monitors closely. There have been many cases of bloggers and other Internet users being arrested, and some sent to prison, and even tortured and killed. In fact, a group of school children were recently taken into custody and held for several days, charged with arranging romantic rendezvous.
There were 6,111 Internet service providers in 2007, at least 20 million Internet users, and probably 500,000 blogs – many in Farsi, the ancestral tongue. But on October 11, 2006, the Government ruled that high-speed service is illegal, undoubtedly to fight the downloading of subversive materials. Unfortunately, this directly contradicts the Government’s “Five Year-Development Plan” that had as a goal the creation of widespread access to broadband service. Despite the ruling, broadband is available in many businesses. Overall, Iranian Internet use has grown more quickly than in any other Middle Eastern country since 2,000.
What Law Governs the Internet in Iran?
The general applicable law is the Press Law and the Penal Code of April 2000, passed under the reformer Khatami. The Press law defers to the Iranian Constitution, which in Article 24, says: “Publications and the press have freedom of expression except when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public. The details of this exception will be specified by law.”
The Press Law contains strict restraints upon what journalists, and by extension newspapers on the Internet and bloggers can express on the Web. For example, in Article 6, free expression is allowed, except where it “violates Islamic principles and codes and public rights as outlined in this chapter.”
The exceptions for free speech, where it must be curtailed, are:
“1. Publishing atheistic articles or issues which are prejudicial to Islamic codes or, promoting subjects which might damage the foundation of the Islamic Republic;
2. Propagating obscene and religiously forbidden acts and publishing indecent pictures and issues which violate public decency;
3. Propagating luxury and extravagance;
4. Creating discord between and among social walks of life specially by raising ethnic and racial issues;
5. Encouraging and instigating individuals and groups to act against the security, dignity and interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran within or outside the country;
6. Disclosing and publishing classified documents, orders and issues, or, disclosing the secrets of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic, military maps and fortifications, publishing closed-door deliberations of the Islamic Consultative Assembly or private proceedings of courts of justice and investigations conducted by judicial authorities without legal permit;
7. Insulting Islam and its sanctities, or, offending the Leader of the Revolution and recognized religious authorities (senior Islamic jurisprudents);
8. Publishing libel against officials, institutions, organizations and individuals in the country or insulting legal or real persons who are lawfully respected, even by means of pictures or caricatures.”
Obviously, these press restrictions cover a lot of ground and are so vague as to give the Government almost unlimited powers to prosecute those it feels are undermining the religion and state.
What About Opening a Blog & Blogger’s Rights?
On January 1, 2007, the Ministries of Islamic Culture and Guidance (MICG), Justice, and Information (“MICG”) announced that all owners of blogs and websites must register by March 1, 2007. The registration form calls for detailed personal information, and the licensee had to promise to abstain from posting content that is anti-Muslim, critical of Iran, or prurient in any way. Despite the new rule, an official from the Telecommunications Ministry admitted total enforcement would be nearly impossible. What Laws or Bodies Govern Internet Crimes in Iran? Many Government bodies monitor and regulate the media and Internet. For instance, besides the Press Authorization and Surveillance Commission, which issues licenses, there is also the High Council for National Security, which censors journalists on a daily basis by forbidding them to cover certain topics such as gay rights or the women’s movements.
The Press Law created a Press Authorization and Surveillance Commission to help monitor papers and journalists. There is also Tehran’s Public Court 1410, also known as the Press Court, which is the court for most cases relating to journalists and publications based in Tehran. Other Iranian cities have similar public courts for the same subject. Also, the Internet Bureau of the Judiciary will also order ISPs to block certain sites via court orders.
Another entity that has authority is the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Sites. This is legally empowered to identify sites that carry prohibited content, and was created in 2003. Its job is to notify the MICT of standards for identifying unauthorized Web sites and also decide which sites shall be blocked. The SCRC oversees committee members from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the Intelligence and Security Ministry, and the Sound and Vision Organization (Islamic Republic of Iran Broad-casting).
In addition, judicial authorities are free to intervene in examining media output, including blog content. The chief prosecutor of Tehran, Mr. Saeed Mortazavi is not averse to calling newspaper editors to direct them as to what should be placed upon their front pages or to forbid the mention certain subjects. The government media are also sent out to impugn the work and reputation of journalists or rogue politicians. These tools are also arrayed against bloggers, if need be.
In terms of laws, a new Bill of Cyber Crimes Sanctions was vetted by the Judiciary’s Committee for Combating Cyber Crimes, and applies to all electronic writings, graphics and any other activity in cyberspace. This law was drawn up in response to a directive of the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council (“SCRC”) to manage Internet activity, “while considering individual rights and safeguarding Islamic, national and cultural values.” The MICG will be the chief Governmental bodies responsible to lead this effort. The MICG now must create an infrastructure to allow management and exterminate illicit and immoral content.
What Punishments are Listed for Breaking the Cyber Crimes Law?
The new Cyber Crimes Bill makes ISPs criminally liable for all their content and they therefore have to monitor and filter constantly, or risk losing their license. Article 18 of the bill makes ISPs responsible to make sure that “forbidden” content is not carried on their servers. If any objectionable content is detected, they must immediately inform law enforcement agencies of violations, retaining the evidence, and then restrict the prohibited content. The bill also has an indemnification clause that protects for disclosure of confidential data and information.
The Press Law considers blogs and websites “publications.” If sites do not obtain licenses before broadcasting, they become ipso facto subject to stricter “General Laws.” Here, the Iranian Penal Code applies, placing harsher restraint on speech. The Penal Code sanctions “content-based crimes” such as propaganda against the state (while the term “propaganda” is undefined). Likewise, Article 513 allows a sentence of death or a prison term of up to five years, result from speech considered an “insult to religion,” but again leaves “insult” undefined. Also, Article 698 gives a two year sentence, or seventy-four lashes as punishment for the following crimes: “intentionally creating “anxiety and unease in the public’s mind,” spreading “false rumors,” or writing about “acts which are not true.”” Again, Article 609 makes a crime of criticizing state officials while carrying out their duties, and calls for a fine, seventy-four lashes, or from 3-6 months in prison as punishment for such insults.