Iran's National Internet Project and the Threat of Isolation

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29 Mar 2016

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The National Internet Project is the first of a two-part report series, 'Tightening the Net', which seeks to examine the threats posed to Internet freedom, freedom of expression and access to information in Iran. In this report ARTICLE 19 explores Iran’s National Internet Project, analysing its history and development, its ramifications for freedom of expression online, and offering recommendations to the Iranian government, as well as private investors and technology companies that may be investing in digital development in Iran.

BACKGROUND: THE INTERNET IN IRAN

The Internet has played a significant role in shaping Iranian society; it has changed the way Iranians connect with each other, personally and professionally, as well as the way they interact internationally. Since its arrival in Iran, young and tech-savvy university students incorporated the Internet into their everyday lives at a rapid rate. Long before the rise of social media and social networks which got us all hooked to our online communities, Iranians were leading the way on the blogging scene.

With the growth of economically accessible Internet devices and mobile Internet, the rate and diversity of web users in Iran increased greatly. But the freedom to access the Internet has not been without its struggles in Iran. The Iranian authorities have sought to implement heavy censorship on unwanted content and have persecuted numerous citizens for their online activities.

The authorities’ wide use of filtering and censorship transformed Iran into a nation of VPN users. The heavy crackdown on online activists and bloggers by the authorities has forced Iranian civil and political activists to take more advanced security measures. Internet access problems for users in Iran are not limited to the battle against government censorship or arrest. Frustrations also stem from the connectivity issues created by Iran’s slow and expensive Internet.

TIGHTENING THE NET

This report, the first in a two-part series, Tightening the Net, looks at the measures proposed by Iran’s National Internet Project (SHOMA) which threaten Internet freedom in Iran. While this national project received international attention when the term 'Halal Internet' was used to describe it, there has been little discussion since about the direction and its consequences it may have on Internet freedom in Iran.

This expansive report provides a detailed background of aims of the project, the progress made so far, and its potential consequences for Internet freedom and freedom of expression in Iran.

Conflicting statements from Iranian officials regarding what the project entails, as well as constant delays in implementation, have meant that the project, its aims, and its consequences remain elusive to most and thus left without sufficient scrutiny. The delay in delivery of the project’s targets should not, however, deter Internet activists from scrutinising these plans and their effects on Internet freedom in Iran.

Tightening the Net highlights two important reasons why those who wish to see unrestricted Internet access for Iranian users must pay attention to the National Internet Project:

  1. Although ambitious, implementation of this project poses real threats to freedom of expression, the right to access, and the right to privacy.
  2. Some of the investments proposed in the project can have positive effects on Internet access in Iran, if the Iranian authorities address the closely related human rights concerns.

Good Internet infrastructure, backed by domestic laws that guarantee the human rights of users, can lead to educational, cultural and economic benefits for the whole of the Iranian society. It is these potential benefits that should encourage us to rethink the narrative on why the National Internet Project is so important for Iranian society.

As recommended in this report, Iran must continue its investment in Internet infrastructure; the positive effects of such investment are already visible under President Rouhani's administration, which has shown a rapid rise in the number of Internet users and Internet bandwidth within Iran since 2013. However, it is crucial that this investment comes with a guarantee to unrestricted and private access to the global Internet for the Internet users inside Iran.

As President Rouhani seeks to re-establish Iran's international ties and move away from the years of isolation created under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran must also rethink any plans that intend to isolate Iran’s large Internet community from the rest of the world.

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