Is Tehran Turning Its Back On the World Wide Web?
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
For years, the Iranian government has been threatening to pull the plug on the world wide web, sealing the nation and its people off from the rest of the Internet. Officially, Tehran says it wants to create a “halal” Internet, or one free from outside “impurities” or temptations. Unofficially, it’s believed the ruling clerics are uncomfortable with the free flow of news and opinions coming from outside Iran, and how democracy advocates inside the nation have used the web to organize. Periodic cyber-attacks, like the Stuxnet virus, only compound the worries.
Very often these threats would rise and fall in close relation to national events, such as upcoming elections or rumors of national protests. For example, earlier this February, with elections nearing, there were renewed rumblings about pulling the country offline. Additionally, the official Iranian office of cyber-police issued new rules requiring online cafes to install video cameras and ask for identification before letting anyone on the net. The government also stepped up efforts to block social network sites like Facebook and Twitter, and slowed Internet traffic to a trickle. Then once the elections passed, the pressure and rhetoric subsided. Just as in years past.
Now, those threats appear to be ramping up once more. Last week, the government announced a prohibition on all banks, telephone companies and other commercial enterprises from using foreign-based email service for its communications. According to the rule, those firms may now only use email services with the .ir top-level domain, effectively banning Gmail, Hotmail and many others. Then on Monday, the semi-official Mehr news service announced that Iran’s main oil terminal on Kharg Island was being taken offline for an unknown period of time due to a cyber-attack.
A source at the National Iranian Oil Company told Reuters that a virus had been detected inside the terminal’s command and control systems, but offered little other information. Of course it’s been impossible to independently verify what actually happened at the Kharg facility. But given Iran’s experience with Stuxnet, and later with the Duqu virus, a new infection at Kharg is a real possibility.
The larger question is whether this is just another momentary squeezing of the Internet, or a sign that officials are seriously working to take their nation off the web. If they can, that is.
Recently web researcher Collin Anderson unearthed a Persian-language request from the Iranian government for help in building a more robust Internet filtering system. “I believe this clearly demonstrates that the Iranian government does not intend on cutting off access to the external Internet time soon,” Anderson told Cyrus Farivar of Ars Technica:
“This might suggest that the government has not been able to acquire the services of foreign companies for planning and optimizing an infrastructure. This is surprising for those, including me, who believe that much of the censorship software and hardware was being developed internally. The RFI seems to imply the desire to move beyond blacklisting sites and keywords, to a more intelligent system of detecting and blocking ‘immoral’ content, such as pornographic or culturally offensive material.”
As frustrating as filtering can be, it’s still a long way off from taking an entire country offline. Only North Korea has severed all ties with the web and built its own intranet, called ‘Kwangmyong’, or ‘bright’ in Korean. And Egypt’s more recent experience with pulling the plug even for just a few days might be enough to persuade Iranian leaders about the potential negative impacts.
It’s a lesson that perhaps even Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, could stand to learn. As our colleague Golnaz Esfandiari points out, his recent fatwa against using anti-filtering software in Iran was itself filtered – by Iranian web blocks.