Concerns over a breach of Iranians’ privacy are growing as hardliners in the government defend a recent legislation to monitor peoples’ lifestyles online.
The controversial legislation, a clause of Article 75 of the Seventh Development Plan, mandates the Ministry of Islamic Guidance to launch a database consisting of information collected from online activities of individuals for “continuous monitoring and evaluation of cultural indicators, people’s lifestyles, media influence, and communications.”
The legislation also requires government agencies and all domestic websites and platforms, including online businesses, to continuously feed their user information to the database.
Media and individuals on social media have extensively criticized the legislation that the parliament approved on November 8 but has yet to be endorsed by the constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council.
Detractors, including legal experts, express concerns over the lack of assurance regarding the safety of individuals’ sensitive personal information, despite a reference to Article 25 of the Iranian Constitution in the legislation. Article 25 explicitly prohibits the government from engaging in spying on citizens’ private communications, “unless when required by law.”
Critics argue that this provision would empower any judge to override individuals’ right to privacy whenever authorities, including security forces, decide to obtain private information and data derived from an individual’s online activities across various platforms. This encompasses information related to travel and transportation, as well as online searches and downloads.
An earlier version of the proposed legislation explicitly outlined that the collected data would be utilized by authorities to “consolidate the Islamic-Iranian lifestyle,” aiming to ensure that people’s lifestyles align with the perceived Islamic standards of the regime.
In an interview with Ham-Mihan newspaper, Ali Yazdikhah, the deputy chairman of the parliament’s cultural committee, insisted that only “macro-data” would be stored in the database, emphasizing that it would not include information on individual citizens’ lives and lifestyles. However, he acknowledged that data inputted into the system, such as individuals’ interests or participation in religious ceremonies like Ashura, could be utilized to assess the general interest “in [Islamic] values and sanctities.”
Several critics, including lawmaker Moeeneddin Saeedi, who opposes the bill, argue that the more the state engages in cultural engineering, the greater resistance it will encounter from the public. Saeedi stated, “Experience has proven that we have failed to advance indicators of culture with these [engineering] methods,” he said during the debate on the parliament floor.
As an example, Saeedi pointed out that the current year’s budget law stipulates that mosques conducting prayer congregations twice daily should receive financial incentives. However, he contended that the effectiveness of such measures in encouraging regular prayer is questionable, as over 75 percent of mosques in the country remain inactive due to insufficient attendance, despite the authorities’ efforts to revitalize them.
Renowned journalist and social researcher Abbas Abdi told Ham-Mihan newspaper that the gathering of data for social research, if indeed the intended purpose of launching a database, is not inherently new or objectionable. However, he argued that government agencies lack the competence to carry out reliable research projects, and they are neither genuinely interested in nor adequately prepared to discover people’s preferences or to publish research results to public.
He highlighted that authorities routinely withhold statistics on sensitive topics, including relationships between men and women, alcohol consumption, addiction, birth rates, age of marriage, and suicide.
“Suppose that they conduct research [based on the data available in the database] about dress code [=hijab], … They can’t publish the results because they are afraid people’s views and beliefs [will be known],” he said.
“However, if they intend to monitor people’s private lives and gather personal information, this would only be for the purpose of controlling and intimidating the public,” he added.