Dispatch | Firewall Fears: Iran's Uncertain Internet Future
by ALI CHENAR in Tehran
18 Jan 2012 19:52
[ dispatch ] Ramin, a 30-year-old engineer who works in technical support, was frustrated several weeks ago when he tried to log into his Gmail account. He was trying to get in touch with a supplier in Turkey and another firm in Germany. "I kept trying to download my email messages," he says. "All I could see was a basic presentation of the name of sender and subject. I wasn't able to open any of them."
Many professionals in Iran like Ramin use Gmail, Yahoo, MSN, and other Internet services to communicate with colleagues and business partners around the world. "The Internet has saved me thousands of rials in communication expenses," he says. "But sometimes I feel it 's not totally reliable," and in turn bad for business. "How many times can I apologize for limited access to the Internet? At some point I am afraid I might lose these partners."
The access disruption did not continue for long. After two days, things were back to normal. Hamid-Reza, a computer engineer and IT specialist who runs an Internet provider service, believes that Islamic Republic authorities "are testing new things." I ask him why. "There is no political unrest, no anniversary...none of the things that usually prompt them to limit access." He has also conducted a few experiments of his own. "I tested upload and download services -- both of them are very fast actually. The problem is bandwidth. The bandwidth had become so limited. This slows down people's access to their personal email accounts and such."
He returns to his previous thought. "The new things could be anything actually: new filters, new tracking systems and such. It could be preparing the stage for national Intranet."
The notion of an Iran-exclusive or "Halal" Intranet is not new. A growing number of Iranian officials have spoken about launching a national network to substitute for the worldwide Internet network. With the approach of the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the supposed deadline for launching a national Intranet, there are more questions than answers. Many are asking what exactly this new network will be. A heavily filtered gateway to access the Internet? A national information database? Or, as in the case of Cuba, a nationwide firewalled intranet with no access to the global Internet? One thing is clear for Iranian Internet users: the authorities do not appreciate their global connectivity. The government emphasizes its concerns over what it calls "national security," which has a very wide definition, while many in conservative circles associate the Internet with inappropriate contact between the sexes and other immoral behavior. A university in northern Iran recently announced that it would punish students who have Facebook accounts.
As far back as 2006, three years before the disputed election in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad maintained his hold on the presidency, officials were speaking of implementing a national network. That summer, Muhammad Soleimani, then the minister of communications and information technology, told Iranian reporters that "a national intranet network has been defined conceptually and we are finalizing its framework and designs." He was ambiguous about its design and scope. "This network will provide the people with an inexpensive and easy way to access to the worldwide Internet network while addressing national security and intelligence concerns." He forecast that "in two to three years, the network will be complete and perfected." Last April, Reza Taghipour, Soleimani's successor as communications chief, made very familiar sounding promises. "From the coming fall, the national Intranet system will replace the worldwide Internet network. It will be perfected in the coming two to three years."
While the autumn came and went without the promised introduction, talk that a national Intranet was finally being readied intensified last month as Iranian users experienced periodic slowdowns and limited connectivity. Payam Karbasi, the spokesman for the Iranian ICT Guild Organization (IIG), confirmed those suspicions to the media. "The Internet has slowed down since we are preparing to launch a national Intranet. Think of a system that checks every package of data communicated, it would be a slow process." According to Karbasi, the "national Intranet will sever Iran's connection to the worldwide Internet network." He compared it to an intranet for a newspaper. "Just as no one could get into your newspaper intranet, this will limit access to some sites. Instead, you can access domestic organizations and websites much faster." According to Karbasi, the launch date is February 11 -- 22 Bahman, the 23d anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.
The thought of losing access to the global Internet system frightens many like Ramin and Hamid-Reza. "It's idiotic!" says Ramin. "There is a wealth of information out there and engineers like me benefit from it. I don't know what will happen but I know I wouldn't be able to work anymore." Hamid-Reza expressed the same fears, but is more hopeful. "This is impossible and the business community will not accept it." He offers a suggestion of what the authorities might actually be up to. "They might try a different filtering system, and this is what they're calling that national Intranet." He adds, "Right now they use a blacklist to limit your access to different websites. They could use a whitelist instead -- you can access a website only if it is on the whitelist."
For the time being, it seems that the authorities have sensed that launching a true national Internet could backfire. In a recent interview, Communications Minister Taghipour tried to assure the business community that little will change. "I do not think 'national Intranet' is the right phrase," he said. "The Internet is international." Yet, according to the minister, "Not everyone needs to use an international bandwidth, which is expensive to purchase." The new system, he explained, is intended to provide "a national infrastructure for information communication." He distinguished the concept of "network" from that of "Internet": "Do not confuse them. Our goal is to launch a national information network to facilitate people's access to government services and to keep their information safe and secure." According to the ministry, the launch date is set not for February, but rather June.
Hamid-Reza acknowledges that he's quite confused. "I do not know whom to believe and what to do." He takes a deep breath, and adds, "So I am going to enjoy my access to the worldwide Internet network while it lasts."
Ali Chenar is a pen name.
Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau