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A computer engineer checks equipment at an Internet service provider in Tehran. (file photo)
Iran’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology is apparently seeking domestic partners to help with its Internet-filtering efforts.

According to a Request For Information (RFI), the ministry-affiliated Research Institute for Information and Communication Technology has called on Iranian companies to offer ideas and pilot projects for “purifying” the Internet.

The RFI, in Persian, was discovered by Washington-based Internet researcher Collin Anderson, who made it available to a few media outlets, including RFE/RL.

The document was translated into English by Ars Technica.

The document says the Internet has been polluted with “immoral sites” that can lead to “major cultural and societal problems.”

“Propagation and creation of local content purifying systems are part of the country’s plans and targets in the area of information technology," it says.

Despite the ominous language, Anderson said he believes the document suggests that Iran is not planning to cut off its citizens' access to the web in the near future.

“What country [that] was just about to pull off Internet access is going to invest more in infrastructure?" he says. "To me, it says that they’re not going to cut off access to the outside.”

National Internet Planned

Iranian officials have said that a national Internet will be launched in the near future, without providing details about its scope. The project has led to concern over whether Iranians will still be able to access the Internet.

Earlier this week, however, Reza Taghipour, Iran's minister of communication and information technology, dismissed rumors that Tehran is planning to shut down the Internet and replace it with a domestic network.
A woman surfs the Internet at a cybercafe in central Tehran. (file photo)
A woman surfs the Internet at a cybercafe in central Tehran. (file photo)
The semi-official Fars news agency quoted Taghipour as saying that Iran does have plans to establish a "national information network" that would function like a sort of intranet for the Islamic republic.

"The main function of this network is that the information produced in Iran -- which is on the increase each day -- and transferred [to a recipient] inside the country will not need to go through international bandwidth to avoid unnecessary costs," Taghipour said.

Internet experts have told RFE/RL that Iran appears to be moving into a dual Internet system that would include a fast national network and a heavily filtered and slow Internet.

Last week, the French media watchdog Reporters Without Borders reported that Mohammad Solimaninya, an Internet and social network expert who has been detained for the past three months, is under “intense” pressure by the Iranian government to work on the national Internet project.

Filtering Troubles

Anderson, who closely watches Iranian cyberspace, believes the document posted by the research institute could also indicate that Iran is having trouble in its filtering efforts.

“Iran isn’t a country that has open bidding and open access laws," Anderson says. "I find it extremely strange that, if they didn’t have to, they would have some kind of open request for bid on a censorship system.

"My feeling is that in any national security project, pretty much every country has its own preferred list of vendors which they turn to without having open calls or anything like that. So the idea that they would have this profoundly open request for help is indicative of the idea that the parties that they’ve turned to in the past [have] not worked out.”

He also said the RFI suggests a desire to increase the capacity of bandwidth and services that exist inside the country and more intelligently filter sites that are deemed immoral or against Iran’s national security.

The research institute, which describes itself as “the mother consultant” to Iran’s Ministry of Communications, has called on companies to submit their bids by April 19.
On April 17, Iran celebrated its National Army Day with military parades and a warning to its enemies, which apparently includes Facebook.

Pictures from the military parade in the city of Isfahan show military jeeps carrying anti-Facebook banners, which declare that the social-networking site is one form of proof of the “soft war” Iran says its enemies have launched to bring down the Islamic establishment.

Facebook is very popular among Iranians, who have to access the site through anti-filtering tools.

A Basij official claimed last year that some 17 million Iranians are using Facebook. Iranian officials are clearly not happy about the popularity of social media, which they accuse of being tools of U.S. intelligence services.

During the 2009 postelection protests, opposition members used social media to document human rights abuses by government forces.

Iranians discuss taboo subjects on social-networking sites and inform others about news and developments that are often being censored or ignored in state media.

One example is this video of last week’s visit by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to Bandar Abbas, where an old man tells him that he’s hungry and a young woman climbs into his car to talk with him.

Last year, a symbolic stoning, similar to the one performed at the annual haj, was staged against Facebook and YouTube at an exhibition of digital media.

This year, military forces marched against Facebook.

We’re wondering, what’s next?

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

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About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.


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