Tightening the Net: Iran’s National Internet Project

Today, ARTICLE 19 is launching the first part of the ‘Tightening the Net’ series, a report which 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.

Executive Summary

“Isolation of the clean Internet from the unclean portion will make it impossible to use the Internet for unethical and dirty businesses.” Reza Taghipour, Iran’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology, 2009 – 2012

For years, there has been discussion amongst the Iranian Authorities of a ‘national’ or ‘clean’ Internet, while taking steps towards the completion of the ‘ National Internet Project’. This project aims to create a national, secure and ‘clean’ Internet, which would be hosted inside the country and have limited access to the content of the World Wide Web. Content within the National Internet would be blocked or filtered according to political, cultural or religious criteria, and its users’ activity would be monitored.

It was planned that the National Internet Project would be fully implemented by the end of 2015, in three major phases:

  • Phase one would separate the clean Internet from its international counterpart;
  • Phase two (planned for completion by 2013) would relocate all Iranian websites to domestic hosts;
  • Phase three, the final phase, would set up local management of the National Internet within the country, implying total access and control by the authorities.

Execution of this three-phase plan has already deviated considerably from expectations. From the onset, severe delays and disorganisation have plagued the already daunting task. According to the latest government budget proposal, full implementation of the National Internet Project is not expected before 2019.

However, there has been progress in certain areas of implementation, as an example, Iranian authorities celebrate the fact that 40 percent of the content visited by Iranian users is now hosted domestically.

There are numerous potential benefits of the development of domestic Internet infrastructures and Internet accessibility. The National Internet Project would consist of a number of elements, from national data-hosting, to a national search engine, email service and social network, as well as faster bandwidth, greater internet penetration, and a higher proportion of Farsi-language content.

The development of domestic Internet infrastructures may also move Iran towards the creation of a faster, more advanced telecommunications infrastructure within the country, with more Iranian users connected. Additionally, increased domestic data-hosting would minimise the risk of international surveillance and other security breaches.

Catalysts for the launch of a National Internet Project also included the imposition of a sanctions regime, escalations in cyber warfare (notably the Stuxnet incident), and information security, in which the government is highly interested. In addition, the project would be expected to reduce dependence on the World Wide Web, reducing foreign ability to exert control over connectivity.

A further central aim of the National Internet Project is to boost Iran’s technology sector, as well as the economy more widely. The World Bank has reported that a one percent increase in the bandwidth penetration rate can lead to a 1.4 percent increase in the economic growth rate of low and middle-income countries. It is also possible that the development of domestic infrastructure needed for the
project could increase the direct employment rate through the creation of projects required for broadband networks, and boost the indirect employment rate through peripheral businesses.

There is potential for an advanced domestic infrastructure to promote an open, secure and reliable connectivity, essential for the rights to privacy, expression and assembly. Access to the Internet can enable individuals to both publish and receive ideas, information and opinions to and from the entire world, facilitating a free flow of content and discussion. This connectivity could also empower individuals by making information about human rights accessible, enabling debate and discussion, as well as facilitating the organisation of social and political movements and activities.

Despite the potential benefits that advancing domestic infrastructure could provide, completion of the National Internet Project as currently formulated could counter both economic and human rights benefits, as well as violating the right to freedom of expression on a national scale. Indeed, the majority of current economic growth can be attributed to an increase in connection speeds, not from the establishment of the roots of a national intranet. Completion of the National Internet Project poses a threat of disconnection of the national information network in Iran from the World Wide Web, which would be a serious technological threat to growth in the Iranian IT sector. Disconnecting the National Internet from the World Wide Web would be a serious technological threat to growth in the IT sector. Isolation from the World Wide Web will suffocate economic growth and expansion, potentially encouraging brain drain and the loss of local talent. By instead cultivating an online culture that is respectful of the free flow and unimpeded access to information, Iran can take steps to minimize such potential losses.

Given Iran’s record in violating its human rights commitments based on civil and political (including religious and ethnic) grounds, the development of projects such as the national Internet are especially concerning. The National Internet Project could pave the way for further isolation, surveillance and information retention. The intentions of the National Internet Project were revealed by the Chair of the Telecommunication Committee in the Islamic Consultative Assembly, Ali Motahari: “The national information network will minimize the concerns arising from the divergence between the Internet and the Iranian cultural environment, socio-cultural anomalies, and security and political concerns.”

Implementation of the National Internet Project would make it easier for the government to block services, and would allow government forces to channel online activity in a way that is conducive to control and suppression. Such a disconnection from the outside world will threaten the freedom of information rights of Internet users in Iran.

A system which systematically blocks and filters content according to certain criteria (the determination of which has not involved any public consultation or transparency), without the order or oversight of an independent court cannot meet international standards on freedom of expression on the Internet.

The Iranian government has repeatedly stated its intention to monitor citizens through the National Internet. The new ease of surveillance associated with this project is also a serious human rights concern: anonymous browsing has long facilitated the expression of controversial ideas and enabled dissent in many countries. The protection of anonymity is vital to freedom of expression and the right to privacy online, allowing individuals to express opinions without fear of reprisal. These fears create an insidious ‘chilling effect’
on freedom of expression worldwide.

Furthermore, anonymity not only protects the freedom of individuals to communicate information and ideas that they would otherwise be inhibited or prevented from expressing, but also protects the freedom to live without unnecessary and undue scrutiny.

This new National Internet, as a replacement for the World Wide Web, poses a threat to the emerging trend of ‘citizen journalism’ in Iran, as well as more traditional media and research activities. Civil society and academia are also at risk from such a regime, that would deny the rights to both express and access information and ideas. The Iranian government has already tried different methods to identify activists via their online presence. The National Internet Project would empower the government on this front, especially if user records are kept and supplied to officials.

The National Internet Project risks severely isolating the Iranian people from the rest of the online world, limiting access to information and constraining attempts at collective action and public protest. At present, the National Internet Project’s implications for human rights are extremely concerning in terms of freedom of expression, freedom of information, and privacy. While the completion of the project has been delayed significantly, the scale of its potential threats to human rights must make opposition to this project a high priority.

Key recommendations

Recommendations to the government of Islamic Republic of Iran:

While ARTICLE 19 welcomes the steps taken by the Iranian government for the advancement of digital technologies in Iran, ARTICLE 19 has the following recommendations to the government in order to respect the digital rights of its people.

• The government of Islamic Republic of Iran must immediately stop all plans that would cut its people off
from, or limit their access to, the World Wide Web;

• The government of Islamic Republic of Iran must stop the blocking and filtering of online content under the
justification of ‘national’, ‘clean’ or ‘halal’ Internet. Any content filtering by the government or commercial service providers that is not end-user controlled is a form of prior censorship, and therefore not justifiable as a restriction on freedom of expression;

• The government of Islamic Republic of Iran must respect the online privacy and anonymity of its people and
immediately stop subjecting them to unlawful surveillance. All surveillance must be in accordance with Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Mass surveillance (or ‘bulk collection’) is an inherently dIsproportionate interference with human rights, and the Islamic Republic of Iran must ensure it complies with international human rights standards in this regard;

• The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran must repeal the Computer Crimes Law in
its entirety, and make comprehensive legal reform to legitimise the exercise of freedom of expression;

• The government of Islamic Republic of Iran must allow non-governmental investment (private, foreign etc.)
inside the country for the advancement of digital technologies in Iran;

• The government of Islamic Republic of Iran must provide universal access to the Internet in Iran i.e. all
parts of the country, including rural areas, and not limited to urban hotspots.

Recommendations to the international community, including foreign technology companies

• Foreign investors and businesses must practice corporate social responsibility in ensuring that their actions do not inadvertently empower the Iranian state in its attempts to censor, suppress and keep surveillance on Iranians’ freedom of expression and information on the Internet;

• Governments, international multi-stakeholder Internet governance bodies and the United Nations must directly address Iran’s adherence to principles of free flow of information and digital rights in their bilateral meetings and joint forums with Iran.

Recommendations to the Iranian online community

• The online community in Iran must as always be vigilant and aware of state controlled threats such as surveillance, identity theft, hacking, phishing, content blocking and filtering). For a detailed set of recommendations to the online community in Iran, please see Computer Crimes in Iran: Risky Online Behaviour.

Read the full report here.