Iran’s National Internet Project

At the end of last month, we heard about the National Internet Project that Iran’s current administration aims to speed into action. The project was started by former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ten years ago, and is technically a good move. The project contains hidden objectives, however, that will severely impact Internet users’ freedoms, according to the analysis conducted by British human rights organization Article 19.

The First Years

In 2011, the Minister of Information and Communications Technology in Iran, Reza Taghipour, summed up the goal of the country’s National Internet Project when he told reporters from the Mehr News Agency that separating the clean and unclean parts of the Internet would ensure that it could not be used for “unethical and dirty business”. Iran’s idea of a clean Internet is subjective, of course, but we can glean that the government’s purpose on the surface of things was to provide better security against negative outside influences. The term that Taghipour used was isolating the clean Internet, which turns out to be essentially the online content that the country can control. This national Internet has been talked over for the last decade, and the Iranian government has begun steps to host content inside Iran and limit access to the wider content of the World Wide Web.

Much content in Iran is already filtered to prevent access to a lot of material that is considered offensive by their government’s political, religious and cultural standards. This is part of the creation of their clean or national Internet, separate from the international Internet, which is the first stage of the project. As the project proceeds, the Internet activities of users in Iran is also going to be monitored much like it is in China. The National Internet Project was supposed to be finished last year, but the Iranian authorities ran into several hitches that have pushed their completion date to 2019. Part of the second stage is also in progress, which is moving every Iranian web site to any one of the available local hosts. This stage is 40% complete and will give the authorities control over the sites. The final stage is what the authorities are going to be focused on in the coming years. This stage entails setting up the complete National Internet to be managed locally so that the government can gain and maintain complete control over all Internet content in the country.

Article 19 Reports Stiffer Internet Regulations

The Article 19 Report on Iran’s plan to clean up the Internet recognizes the benefits of building up local infrastructure, but the problem is – as it always is – with who controls what, how that power is wielded, and the potential for abuse. In Iran, the track record of the government does not paint a pretty picture for the future of Internet freedom. Basically, Article 19 uncovered a deeper plan to separate Iran’s Internet from the World Wide Web for the purpose of increasing user monitoring and censorship. This is potentially the Great Firewall Part 2 in a nutshell.

Developing domestic Internet can still mean better connectivity and access, however. The National Internet Project will provide better speeds and improved access to a national network of email, social media, Internet search, Farsi-language content, and data hosting. This can also lead to better telecommunications infrastructure and more security against international surveillance activities and cybercrime. This will all be great for the economy, particularly in the tech community, and for general improvement in employment. A national Internet also limits the ability of foreign elements to influence connectivity, but this area can be manipulated to support censorship. Finally, it can also promote more secure and open access at the same time, although tight monitoring is not going to support better freedom of expression, assembly or privacy. User empowerment and the free flow of information is not a goal of the National Internet Project.

According to their “Tightening the Net” report, Article 19 believes that the National Internet Project is going to negate the economic benefits of infrastructure development and further violate human rights in the country. The most that the people will get is the simple benefits springing from faster Internet speeds. Iran’s already thin connection to the World Wide Web is going to be completely severed, affecting not only the tech industry but all economic sectors. Because of the country’s track record for human rights violations connected to religious, cultural and political issues, Article 19 predicts that the National Internet Project is going to serve to isolate the country economically rather than giving it a boost. International spying might be curtailed, but it is predicted that domestic spying will increase several fold. With the close monitoring of all Internet users, data retention will also become all too easy for the government. Ali Motahari, Chair of the Telecommunication Committee in the Islamic Consultative Assembly, calls the project a way to direct Iranian’s online activity so that it can be muzzled.

Iran’s National Internet Project is proceeding with absolutely no independent oversight or transparency, and is not open to comment by the public. It is a clear threat to international freedoms and rights, including media freedoms, and to educational research as well. Civil society will greatly suffer from a restricted flow of information and ideas and a limited ability to organize any movements in the interests of the public.

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