On Sunday, Iran’s communications and information technology minister, Mahmoud Vaezi, attended the inauguration ceremony for the launch of something that could make the start of a sinister new phase in global online development. He was present as Iran launched its “national internet”.
Those of you who thought the internet was a global infrastructure beyond the control of national states underestimate the determination of authoritarian regimes, particularly theocratic ones, such as Iran, to control their citizen’s access to the world wide web.
Iran already has one of the world’s most restricted internet’s, with few countries other than communist China exerting more control over what their people can and can’t do online. Numerous sites, including popular social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, are permanently blocked in Iran. But of course, this doesn’t stop many people there using a VPN to evade this censorship and access them anyway.
The Iranian regime is all too aware of this and knows how hard it is to track down VPN users. So their plan is to create an isolated domestic intranet, rather like the intranet you might use if you work for a big company or an institution such as a University.
With this type of network, the Government of Iran would have complete control over what was and wasn’t available to users. External content is likely to be barred in full.
Of course, the Government spin machines have gone into overdrive trying to sell this concept to a doubtless cynical public. The Islamic Republic News Agency report into the inauguration highlighted the fact that Iran’s domestic internet will be “high quality, high speed, and low cost”.
Meanwhile, the Mehr News Agency described it as a “National Information Network” and also stressed that the network would “be respecting users privacy”.
Of course, those familiar with Iran’s record on online privacy, and indeed human rights, are understandably skeptical about these assurances.
Earlier this year, Article 19, a UK-based human rights campaign group, published a detailed report on Iran’s online censorship. In it they warn that Iran’s long track record of breaching the rights of their citizens make the development of this project “especially concerning”.
They highlight concerns which have been expressed by many others too, that the new domestic internet is likely to enable the Iranian regime to further suppress external content, increase surveillance of their citizens, and further isolate Iran and the Iranian people from the rest of the world.
Of course, this is not the picture that the Iranian regime is painting of the development. They have highlighted a three-stage roll-out of the programme which will see phase one including domestic websites and e-government services; phase 2 adding domestic video content; and phase 3, in March next year, introducing further services and support for companies that trade abroad.
This last phase, in particular, seems to suggest that links overseas are likely to be severely curtailed. But as ever we must wait to see if this is the case.
Those living in Iran and using a VPN to enjoy unhindered access to the internet will no doubt be concerned, though. Indeed the prospect of online links to the outside world being cut altogether, apart from for big international trading companies, seems a distinct, and frightening, possibility.