In an effort to “de-Westernize” and maintain control over internet users and the spread of information, the Iranian government has launched a state-sponsored internet, known formally as the National Information Network. This new service, nicknamed the “halal” (lawful) internet, is another attempt by the ayatollah regime in Tehran to limit the spread of information into and around Iran.
“The network is basically a government effort to create a nationally controlled internet,” Sanam Vakil, an associate fellow at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank in London, told The Media Line. “Iran is a state that has heavy internet censorship so a national internet would be a way to provide increased government control.”
This state-sponsored internet acts more as an intranet, which is essentially a private network controlled by an organization, which, in this case, is the Iranian government. In this type of system, all users are identifiable and the state can determine what users can and cannot see. These types of systems are common in workplaces and other large organizations to control what employees can and cannot access.
“It is a more managed, internal internet,” Gabi Siboni, head of cyber security at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, which is a theocracy, has been vehemently anti-Western since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which overthrew the dictatorial monarchy and instead introduced all-powerful religious figures—the ayatollahs.
The state has maintained a tight grip on the press and the spreading of information in and around Iran, which is ranked 169 out of 180 in the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, an NGO dedicated to defending media freedom. In Iran, journalists are arrested and sometimes beheaded for publishing anti-government or anti-Islam content on websites or social platforms.
“There is no open freedom of information or freedom of the press in Iran,” Vakil said. “This new service is an effort to have more institutionalized control over the internet and, particularly, the freedom of information.”
Both the government and the clergy fear Western infiltration, especially through the world wide web. Thus, creating an intranet can keep Western topics—from pornography to fashion—out of Iran.
“It’s a nice culmination, or next step, in a long series of attempts to control what Iranians can see,” Ze’ev Maghen, a Middle Eastern history professor at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv told The Media Line. “It’s like an amplified ‘Google safe’ search.”
While the Iranian government does not necessarily want to ban the internet, they want to purify it, Vakil added. It even created an agency known as the Cyberspace Supreme Council to police internet usage in the country.
However, this network service is not yet exclusive, and Iranians can still use the regular internet. In an effort to attract users, the government has offered a series of incentives—like low prices and quick installation—to using this state-sponsored internet, which claims to be 60 times faster than any current internet in Iran.
“This is a persuasive tool to increase internet usage and deceive people that the internet connection is faster,” Vakil said.
Most Iranians have figured out ways to circumvent the closely monitored web. Many people use proxies, which are essentially intermediate servers that hide an internet user’s IP address creating anonymity and allowing users to access sites that are currently unavailable in their countries.
“If I’m looking at something in Google and I don’t want people to know what I am looking for, I go through a VPN (a virtual private network) and the request comes from a different IP address and it is presumably more secure,” Siboni said.
This new internet service was unveiled after some 100 internet users were arrested in Iran and two press agencies as well as two online news outlets were blocked, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Article written by student journalist Katie Beiter
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line