Iran's "Second Internet" Rivals Censorship Of China's "Great Firewall"

Iran is unveiling a nationwide "Halal Intranet" this spring that will try to seal the nation off from the corrupting influences of Google, Facebook, and Twitter. But can it work?

Iran's long-awaited "Halal Internet"—a nationwide intranet that will be heavily monitored and cut off from the rest of the world—finally has a launch date. According to Iranian Telecommunications Minister Reza Taghipour Anvari, Iran's new Internet will be launched in late May or early June. The project is the most ambitious effort yet by any government to censor the Internet, with the exception of China's "Great Firewall." Governments worldwide are watching the launch, which could fuel the growth of easy-to-monitor, censored, and publicly accessible national intranets in many different countries—if Iran's Internet actually works.

The late spring launch is a delay on Iran's part; their national intranet was originally expected to launch in February. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Golnaz Esfandiari quoted Taghipour Anvari as saying that "Supporting local software and creating secure communication infrastructure are among the most important strategic decisions in the field of cyber defense, and in this regard the first phase of this network will become operational in the month of Khordad." The month of Khordad on the Persian calendar begins in late May. Taghipour Anvari made the announcement at a Tehran cybersecurity conference on February 20. According to reports from the Iranian Students' News Agency obtained by Le Monde, Taghipour also announced that Iran would use new measures to block VPNs (français) at the same conference. VPNs are a preferred workaround in Iran, China, and other Internet-censorship regimes that allow users to access forbidden websites.

Fast Company first reported on the "Halal Internet" back in 2011. The big question for observers is what a nationwide intranet would look like. After examining chatter from cybersecurity experts, Iranian expat boards, and Western Iran watchers, the general consensus is ... Iran's national Internet is more like an intranet, basically a walled garden similar to AOL or Compuserve back in those services' golden years. The only catch? Instead of operating with the goal of getting as many subscriber fees as possible, the "Halal Internet" will exist with the goal of making it difficult for ordinary Iranians to communicate with the larger world.

Iran's national intranet is specifically designed not to allow users to access websites outside of the country. There will have extensive built-in logging capabilities, with control of top-level network infrastructure lying in the hands of the government. The government and affiliated institutions will serve as primary content providers, and content creation by individual users will be heavily monitored. Pornography and content deemed critical to the Iranian government will be forbidden. Internet users inside Iran have seen several surprise service disruptions and government announcements in recent days.

On February 20, Iranian Internet users found that their access to Gmail, Google, Yahoo and all https websites had been blocked. This blockade followed another nationwide outage on February 10. The Iranian government, meanwhile, announced that the import of non-Iranian computer security software would be forbidden. In the announcement, Taghipour Anvari claimed that "Domestic security programs have been improving, and Iran will use them, instead of foreign security software, which cannot be trusted." New regulations were also put in place at the beginning of the year that require cyber cafes to collect users' photo identification and to give customer information to the Iranian government, as well as detailed logs of every website visited by patrons. Internet cafes are a preferred access method for lower-middle class and working class families who cannot afford home computers.

Iranian parliamentary elections are scheduled for March 2, 2012. In addition, there have been concerns of repeats of the 2009 Iranian election demonstrations or of unforeseen domestic complications if Iran and Israel go to war.

In recent weeks, millions of Iranians have had trouble accessing the Internet. Local service blockages, while patchy and sporadic, have been very real. The makers of Hotspot Shield VPN told Fast Company that a sharp increase in VPN downloads took place in Iran from February 18 until February 20. At the peak download time on February 20, more than 8,000 daily downloads took place in a single day. Ancedotal evidence also suggests that smaller, sporadic Internet slowdowns—sharp attacks of sudden lag—have taken place in Tehran and other large cities this past month. Tor is also developing products for the Iranian market.

We don't know whether the Iranian national intranet will definitely be launched in late spring. The only conclusive word on it is the Iranian Communications Minister's statement; no formal announcement has been made. Information on the funding allotted to the project, the technical specifications, and the testing process are barely available—whether in Persian, English, or in any other language.

In whatever form it will take, other governments will be eagerly watching. Initiatives to envision a successor technology to the Internet such as Stanford's Clean Slate program have been eagerly followed by two separate groups. Nation-states such as China and North Korea believe that a successor technology to the Internet—such as a nationwide intranet—would be easier to monitor, and international organizations such as the United Nations suspect the Internet has fundamentally dangerous native technology flaws and could be bought down by malicious hackers. Either way, if Iran pulls off their "Halal Internet," it will have profound international consequences.

Meanwhile, just over the way in South Asia, Pakistan has taken the first steps toward building a massive national Internet censorship system that would block access to "millions of undesirable web sites."

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

[Image: Carsten Reisinger via Shutterstock]

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