By the end of August, if Tehran’s plans progress as announced, Iranians going online will find themselves restricted to communicating only with each other—under the watchful eye of Iran’s cyber censors.
Plans for an all-Iranian intranet to replace access to the Web were announced in early July by Iran’s Communication and Information Minister (an Orwellian title if ever there was one), Reza Taqipour Anvari. From Tehran’s point of view, a “National Internet”—or “Clean Internet,” as it is also described—would take already considerable efforts at control to a new level.
There are also plans for a national Iranian search engine, “Ya Haq” (Oh Just One), which is scheduled to debut in early 2012. The purported aim is to “better manage national emails and information gathering within the country and improve security,” the minister said. From a government point of view, this is eminently desirable.
The position of the Iranian government vis-à-vis the Internet has evolved dramatically over the past decade. Initially, according to Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net 2011,” Tehran regarded the Internet as a catalyst for economic and scientific development. It was first introduced into the country by the Iranian government in the 1990s, and the government of President Mohammad Khatami invested heavily in Internet infrastructure, connecting cities with fiber-optic cables. By the beginning of 2000, there were 625,000 Internet users in Iran; just five years later, several million.
Today, the Internet reaches one-third of Iran’s 75 million people. Iran has had one of the most active and thriving Internet communities, particularly excelling in poetry and blogs. However, in 2001, Supreme leader Ali Khatami and the Cultural Revolution High Council began to clamp down on freedom of expression online, as Internet activism was perceived as a political threat. Following the June 2009 presidential election, Internet censorship went into high gear with the creation of the Iranian Cyber Army. The 2011 Freedom House report ranks Iran as “Not Free,” with rampant website blocking, political censorship, and arrests of bloggers and online users.
From the perspective of Iran’s burgeoning generation of bloggers, citizen reporters, and Web activists, the arrival of an Iranian intranet would be a further blow and a technological challenge. Try as they might, for countries like Iran, China, and Cuba, controlling the march of technology is a constant and consuming effort. As has invariably been the case with other attempts at controlling freedom-advancing technologies—from the printed word to fax machines, satellite dishes, and cell phones—this tug-of-war will eventually favor those who seek freedom. They very much deserve our support and aid.