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Oh Lord: Why Iran's National Search Engine Will Likely Fail

According to various reports, Iran will launch its own national search engine by 2012.

From "The Jerusalem Post":

Hadi Malek-Parast, Director General for Research and Development at the Iranian Information Technology Company, told the Iranian Mehr News Agency on Sunday that Iran has started developing a national search engine dubbed ‘Ya Haq’, a Persian expression meaning “Oh Lord.”

Speaking of the need for faster search capacity and higher security for the country’s online communications, Malek-Parast said Ya Haq would be ready to launch in 2012 and referred to the project as a domestic Intranet, as opposed to an international Internet.

If Iran goes ahead with the plan, it wouldn't be the first. China is making a foray into national search and there are reports that a working prototype of a Russian search engine could appear soon.

National search engines are potentially worrisome as they could be one of the first steps toward closed societies creating national intranets. If you're lucky enough to even get on the Internet, it would be a sanitized world, where only pictures of the great leader and sycophantic state media would be piped into your home by state-run broadband.

This would be the Orwellian extension of Jonathan Zittrain's argument about the dangers of moving away from "generative technologies" (i.e. PCs that can be modified for different uses and reprogrammed) versus "sterile appliances" (i.e. your iPhone connected to Apple's closed store). Mostly in a Western context, he has argued that this shift is dangerous as it will kill innovation and place the power in the hands of the few.

In the West that might leave you in the horrible position of only being able to choose from three 24-hour live-stream sports channels, but in Iran, if done right, it would be like trying to do all of the things you do on the web, but if you could only use your work's intranet

That said it will be hard to see "Oh Lord" taking off. The Iranian plans might be more about vanity than anything else: in an age of Google and American predominance in Internet technologies, where even Iran's government agencies are reduced to sharing cracked copies of Western programs, it could just be an attempt to highlight the "autonomy" of their Internet sector.

Also, the Iranian government, already facing huge economic challenges, doesn't have the money to throw at a national search engine -- and it's unlikely to generate much serious private funding. Partly because of the brain drain of much of its tech talent and partly because of years of sanctions (some of which have been recently lifted), Iran just doesn't have the in-country resources to build something to match what, say, China has been doing with search.

In Iran, it's all a bit academic anyway, as the type of people the Iranian government are most worried about tend to be young and Internet-savvy and most likely use proxy servers, which allow them to elude government censorship on the web.

Unless the government finally wins the cat-and-mouse game with the proxy providers, Iran will keep its two parallels internets -- proxy and nonproxy. By launching a national search engine, those internets would just get further apart.