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Iran’s ‘National Internet’ Offers Connectivity at the Cost of Censorship

Human rights group Article 19 produced a new report looking at Iran’s ongoing investment in its own “clean” internet.

Iran's plan to isolate and monitor all internet services within the country will place huge limitations on Iranians' ability to safely express themselves online, according to a report published today by freedom of expression campaign group Article 19.

The report, Tightening the Net: Internet Security and Censorship in Iran, outlines the wide-ranging and often contradictory objectives of the National Internet Project, which was first announced ten years ago under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and now scheduled for completion in 2019.

On a technical level, the project includes many upgrades to current communications infrastructure within the country aimed at boosting ICT development and economic growth: One of the key targets is to add an additional 12,000 km of fibre optic cables to the country's telecommunications network, expanding internet penetration in rural areas and bringing 20Mbps broadband connections to seven main cities (by comparison, urban areas in the UK have speeds that average at just over 50Mbps).

At the same time, Iran's IP space will be transitioned from the older IPv4 protocol to IPv6, making it a regional leader in the move towards global implementation of the standard and greatly increasing the number of allocatable IP addresses.

"The completion of this project in its current form would have a devastating impact on internet users"

But the overarching goal behind the project is to separate the Iranian internet from the global web—blocking access to external content that might be politically or culturally subversive, and centralising the routing of all online communications from within the country to allow for total surveillance.

By way of a mission brief, Reza Taghipour, minister of information and communications technology from 2009-2012, told Iran's Mehr News Agency that "[i]solation of the clean internet from the unclean portion will make it impossible to use the internet for unethical and dirty businesses"—a mandate which ties into the strict online censorship introduced in the Computer Crimes Law in 2010, which criminalised offences against "public morality and chastity" and the "dissemination of lies," effectively legitimising the suppression of any criticism of the regime or its deeply conservative values.

"Development of better infrastructure may well lead to faster internet access" said David Diaz-Jogeix, director of programmes at Article 19. "However, the aim of developing this domestic internet infrastructure for the National Internet Project ultimately is to restrict access to world wide web and harvest private information about internet users in the country. The completion of this project in its current form would have a devastating impact on internet users, and severely limit freedom of expression for people inside Iran."

In order to exercise this control over the country's internet, the government of Iran intends to bring as much as possible of the physical hosting of data and services used by Iranians within the country's borders. According to statistics published by Iran's Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, 40 percent of the content currently visited by Iranian users is hosted inside the country, but the government's overall intention is to double this to at least 80 percent.

To this end, alongside homegrown content providers such as the YouTube-like Aparat and social networking site Cloob, the government has funded the creation of bespoke national email providers, search engines, e-government services and even a national browser based on the open source Firefox. Additionally, selectively throttling access speeds to international services is employed as a way to drive Iranian users towards adopting domestic alternatives, with the upshot that they become far easier to monitor, especially when government-sanctioned channels are used in combination.

Ironically, Article 19's report suggests the construction of large-scale filtering and surveillance apparatus in Iran has been partly justified by a logic of protecting citizens from surveillance elsewhere. Members of the Iranian police and intelligence services had already expressed concerns about the interception of communications passing through US data centres, which the Snowden leaks revealed were grounded in fact, Diaz-Jogeix explained.

"The knowledge that the US, UK, and other 'Five-Eyes' governments (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) were carrying out illegal mass surveillance programmes has not only had an impact on the privacy and freedom of expression of individuals in those countries, but has provided inspiration for expanded and far-reaching surveillance practices in other countries, including Iran," he said. "The revelations that governments who hold themselves up to be beacons of freedom were (and still are) engaging in mass surveillance of their citizens encouraged Iran to form its own narrative on the need for further surveillance and censorship."

"The National Internet Project [creates] an all-powerful state that closely monitors its citizens and blocks information from outside sources"

Since its inception, the National Internet Project has suffered from numerous delays, and the original planned completion date of 2015 has now been revised back to 2019 at the earliest. But the government is known to have allocated hundreds of millions of dollars towards further development, spending an estimated $285 million on works related to the project in 2015 alone, according to Article 19's research.

While the project is still under development, a chance remains for outside agencies to steer Iran towards openness. The report recommends that national governments and internet governance bodies directly address Iran's duty to uphold the digital rights of its citizens, and also advises that any foreign companies or investors work only within guidelines set out by human rights law.

"While we urge internet companies to continue to engage constructively in discussions concerning increasing internet access in Iran, we unequivocally call on them to avoid providing assistance to the Iranian government's surveillance and censorship projects that would restrict the free flow of information and views online," said Diaz-Jogeix.

So far, Iran's younger and more computer literate generation have proved themselves able to bypass attempts at censorship, but the government's severe speed restrictions on unwanted traffic (including SSL connections which can be used to tunnel to other sites) is likely to push more people towards domestic services out of sheer practicality.

"Whilst a particularly tech-savvy Iranian may find ways to circumvent a 'National Internet,' should it come into being, we do not know to what extent this might be the case," Diaz-Jogeix said. "We already know that the Iranian authorities have the power to slow down or 'switch-off' the Internet at critical moments, for example during elections. The National Internet Project goes a step further in creating an all-powerful state that closely monitors its citizens and blocks information from outside sources."

With a population that is already familiar with the web, Iran is unlikely to be able to create anything as hermetic as North Korea's hugely limited Kwangmyong network. But even if filtering and censorship is not total, such a level of intervention into internet access and content can only be a further blow to freedom of expression in the country.