Iran’s Network in a Bottle: Forget censoring the World Wide Web. Why not just build a state-controlled internet of your own?
In May, just a few weeks before the third anniversary of the Web-savvy Iranian protests of 2009, Internet users in Iran received some strange news.
Suddenly, anyone with an e-mail address hosted by a foreign company—Gmail, Hotmail, and the like—was no longer allowed to contact local banks from that address. The government decreed that banking transactions could take place only via in-country e-mail services. Iran’s more than 8 million Internet users were accustomed to online censorship, but this was something different: an order intended to keep a key aspect of online life strictly within Iran’s borders. Technology observers and Iran experts agreed this wasn’t an isolated incident. It was part of a long-term plan.
The Iranian government, which presides over one of the most educated and connected populations in the Middle East, is building an Internet all its own. Observers expect it will be fully operational as soon as next year. Iran’s so-called national or halal Internet will be a kind of anti-Internet—a self-contained loop within Iran’s borders featuring only regime-approved Iranian sites, and cut off from the World Wide Web.
A closed national network like that might seem implausible, but it’s not unique. Iran is on target to join a small club of countries with such bottled, state-constructed alternatives to the Internet. North Korea and Cuba also sponsor state-run networks designed to keep their citizens from ever having a peek at what the rest of the world knows as the Web.
Even as the Internet continues its explosive growth, and even as it creates hopes for freedom in, for example, the countries of the Arab Spring, repressive states are learning to use online technology to do precisely the opposite: to create and maintain wholly unfree networks of their own, designed not to connect their people to the world, but to fence them off. Their existence is a sharp rebuke to the Western idea that online connectivity always points, slowly but surely, to greater openness.