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Computer Crimes in Iran: Online repression in practice

Iran's Computer Crimes Law was approved by parliament in January 2009. Many believe it has been instrumental in the prosecution and repression of cyber-activists and bloggers. Its 56 articles concerning internet usage and online content are ambiguous, vague and therefore dangerous. The Computer Crimes Law appears to be the latest addition to the Islamic Republic of Iran's vast censorship apparatus.

This report presents a collection of narratives from Iranian civil society activists who have become victims of the Iranian regime's sophisticated censorship apparatus and its suppression of digital activism. These activists had built prominent online presences over the years, and faced the strong hand of the regime because of their legitimate online critiques of the regime's control of civil society and/or politics.

This report also hints at the contentious relationship between the growth of the internet in Iran over the past two decades and the regime's response to it. This will help readers to appreciate and put into context the importance of the Computer Crimes Law, a relatively new element in the Iranian regime's vast apparatus of tools for the methodical suffocation of civil society and online expression.

Our research shows that the Iranian leadership has, up to now and on the pretext of “national security”, sacrificed an open internet and a thriving civil society in order to ensure its own survival. The Iranian leadership fears the benefits of openness and transparency. Its policies and positions demonstrate its desire for increased control of the internet and for greatly enhanced monitoring. In fact, the Iranian regime does not need the Computer Crimes Law to repress activists, because it will be able to continue relying on the traditional existing legal apparatus, particularly the Penal Code, to intimidate and punish digital activists for expressing their views publicly. However, the Computer Crimes Law provides the regime with an additional legal tool, and an important one. It contributes to a larger orchestrated campaign aimed at effectively minimising or eliminating the freedoms which online fora provide for legitimate discussion and criticism and for any challenges to the Iranian government's control of society and politics.

The Computer Crimes Law and the Iranian regime's overall approach to censoring freedom of expression on the internet are in many ways contrary to international norms, human rights laws and interpretive standards. ARTICLE 19 believes that restoring the right to freedom of expression in Iran requires wholesale reform in order to redress the conceptual failure signified by the Computer Crimes Law and other legislation. The protection and promotion of freedom of expression must be reasserted as the norm and limitations on free expression must be the exception.

ARTICLE 19 hopes that the most recent steps taken by President Rouhani will pave the way for more progressive policies that enshrine freedom of expression and human rights, rather than demonising them, and that these will lead to more constructive relationships amongst all of the stakeholders who are interested in advancing human rights globally.

RECOMMENDATIONS TO THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN
The Computer Crimes Law and the Iranian regime's overall approach to censoring freedom of expression over the internet are contrary to international norms, human rights laws and interpretive standards in multiple ways. ARTICLE 19 believes that restoring the right to freedom of expression in Iran requires wholesale reform to redress the conceptual failure signified by the Computer Crimes Law and other legislation. The protection and promotion of freedom of expression must be reasserted as the norm and limitations on free expression as the exception.

ARTICLE 19 hopes that the most recent steps taken by President Rouhani will pave the way for more progressive policies enshrining, not demonising, freedom of expression and human rights, and will lead to more constructive relationships with all stakeholders interested in advancing human rights globally.

Therefore, ARTICLE 19 recommends the following to the executive body of the Islamic Republic of Iran:

− The protection and promotion of freedom of expression must be reasserted as the norm, and limitations on free expression as the exception.

− The practice of arbitrary arrests and the intimidation of civil society actors should be stopped immediately.

− All individuals who have been deprived of their liberty and imprisoned or detained for peacefully exercising their rights to free expression, association, and assembly - in particular bloggers, software developers and others arrested on the pretext of cybercrimes - should be immediately released.

− State-sponsored censorship activities, including systematic filtering of internet content, should be immediately abolished.

− Investment in information technology infrastructure, including increasing the speed and connectivity of the internet, should take place to help Iran catch up with the rest of the developed world and help Iranians engage in commercial development activities for the benefit of the country (trade, exchange of services and international commerce).

ARTICLE 19 recommends the following to the legislative and the judiciary bodies of the Islamic Republic of Iran:

− The repeal of the Computer Crimes Law in its entirety, and comprehensive legal reform to amend any legislation that restricts the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression.

− The immediate repeal of any law imposing liability on internet Service Providers for the content of expression that passes through their systems.

Read the full report here.

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