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Explainer: Iran's National Internet

Web-savvy Iranian oppositionists are renowned for their ability to use proxies and other means to circumvent Tehran's efforts to block their Internet access.
Reports that Iran has stepped up its Internet censorship in recent days -- as evidenced by a general slowdown of the web, Internet blackouts, and the blocking of sites such as Google -- has raised speculation that the country might be testing its controversial "national Internet."

Iran's plans to introduce a domestic computer network that would be compatible with Islamic principles and work independently from the World Wide Web are shrouded in secrecy.

But the development of what has been described as a huge internal office network has sounded alarm bells among Iranians and anticensorship activists.

RFE/RL has compiled this quick guide to the possible introduction of a national Internet in Iran and the challenges it may face.

What are Iran's official reasons for developing its own system?

Other countries have developed their own internal computer networks -- North Korea is the leading example -- and Iran has its own stated reasons for doing so, namely:

As a cost-saving measure;

As reported by the Fars news agency on January 12, Telecommunications Minister Reza Taghipour says the new system will eliminate the need to rely on an international bandwidth for domestic connections, which would reduce bandwidth expenses by up to 30 percent

To protect public morality;

The domestic system has been described by officials as "halal," or clean, meaning it would be in accordance with Islamic law and prevent users from accessing immoral sites

As a security measure;

Officials such as Iran's Police Chief Esmail Ahmadi-Moghaddam have warned against the use of foreign search engines such as Google, describing them as a tool for spying

"When we search our desired information on the World Wide Web, we leave a trace of our personal information," Fars quoted him as saying in January, citing the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA). Moghaddam has said that a national Internet can help protect people's information from outside enemies.

"The source of our computer information should not be outside the country," Fars quoted him as telling ILNA. "We can have the source here inside the country. Our connections should be made to secure places in order to avoid subversive action."

Are those the real reasons?

The fear is that the real reason is that Iran wants to improve its ability to sever its citizens' connection to the outside world.

Web-savvy Iranians rely on the World Wide Web for accessing uncensored news and information and connecting with others. They are renowned for their ability to use proxies and other means to circumvent Tehran's efforts to block their access.

But, according to Swiss-based researcher Nima Rashedan, the Iranian authorities could be trying to curb these activities.

"They want to make the national Internet traffic independent so that in case something happens, as it did with the [2009 post-election mass street protests] they can shut down the Internet, keep the traffic inside the country, and prevent contact between Iranian citizens and the outside world," he says.

Rather than just damaging or immoral sites, the belief is that the system could be used to prevent citizens' access to many popular sites.

In early February, numerous observers reported an apparent uptick in censorship.

Some observers also suggest that Iran's efforts to develop its own intranet could help protect Iran from outside cyber attacks similar to the 2010 Stuxnet virus.

How long has the national Internet been in the works?

Officials have been promising to introduce something like this since at least 2006. It has been reported that the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad allocated $1 billion to develop the project. Other reports place the number at about $37 million.

When will it go online?

The exact date of the national Internet's launch is not clear, but news of the system picked up recently after officials began saying it could be introduced in the near future.

In January, Fars cited the Telecommunications Ministry as saying it would be launched "in the next few months."

Will it completely replace the World Wide Web in Iran?

Little is known about the ultimate scope of Iran's domestic Internet project, but Telecommunications Minister Taghipour in January stressed that the national network would not completely replace the World Wide Web.

He said Iran would continue to remain connected to the global Internet, but he also intimated that what he called "main communications" would take place on the domestic network.

Police Chief Moghaddam, in comments made to the Islamic Republic News Agency in January, said: "We are not cutting our cyber relations with other countries and the international Internet service by launching our own national internet."

Reza Bagheri, the director of the Telecommunication Ministry's research institute, was quoted in 2011 as saying that 60 percent of Iranian homes and businesses would be incorporated into the domestic network.

He also said it would extend to the entire country within two years of its launch.

How would the new system look to the user?

Again, few specifics are available, but Washington-based censorship expert Collin Anderson believes it would resemble normal Internet interfaces.

"It would look like a regular Internet in every way except you wouldn't be able to reach any website outside of Iran," he says. "You hypothetically wouldn't be able to e-mail anyone outside of Iran. You wouldn't be able to make Skype phone calls, etcetera. Anything that would touch an outside service would be broken."

What obstacles would have to be overcome to bring it online?

According to Anderson, who has closely studied Iranian cyberspace, Iran would have to confront several practical issues before it could cut itself off from the World Wide Web.

"The biggest one is that even its own sites -- several of its own sites -- aren't hosted by Iranian companies," he says. "When you look at private or personal sites, the number increases.

"Probably the majority of Iranian websites are hosted outside the country. The problem is that [Iran has] been late to the game in developing its own capacity.

"Another thing is the availability of services; people need e-mail and the majority of Iranians -- even government officials from the looks of it -- use American-hosted e-mail services such as Gmail or Yahoo."

Anderson claims his research shows that around 20 percent of websites affiliated with Iran's government are hosted outside the country.

To launch its own Internet, Iran would have to pressure all private and government sites to move inside Iran and it would also have to increase its capacity for web hosting. It would also need to create more content in Persian.

But even if Iran managed to successfully launch its own Internet, it would still need access to the global Internet for its own purposes, including banks and businesses that need to be able to communicate with the outside world.

Nima Rashedan says Iran could quickly move into something like a dual Internet framework: a fast and cheap national network that would provide easy access to domestic sites but make connections to the World Wide Web very slow, heavily filtered, and expensive.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.