Dan Swinhoe (Middle East)- Iran vs. The Internet

After years of filtering and state-sponsored attacks, Iran is finally going offline. Dan Swinhoe investigates the 'Iranternet'

Last week Google and Gmail were blocked in Iran. Nothing too surprising there, you might say. Iran is known for blocking sites it doesn't approve of. And while you might be right, this is different. Iran isn't just planning on blocking Google, it's planning to block the whole Internet.

No one quite knows how ‘Iranternet' will work. But what is clear is the government plan to prevent the country's 36,500,000 Internet users from accessing the World Wide Web and instead direct them to its own domestic version.According to a minister within the country, the move is in response to various things; cyber-attacks, the US controlling the internet, and portions of cyberspace being used for espionage. Key ministries and state bodies have already moved off the WWW, according to the Telegraph, and the rest of the populace is expected to follow. According to Iranian media, the domestic system would be fully implemented by March 2013 but it was not clear whether access to the global Internet would be cut once the Iranian system is rolled out.

Already one of the biggest internet filters in the world, the government blocks its citizens from accessing any sites it deems offensive or criminal. Which is a lot. Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Youtube have been banned for a while now; even websites and blogs belonging to supporters of President Ahmadinejad have been on occasion. Never particularly fond of the Internet, Iran is notorious for its censorship of the web. The Freedom On The Net report for 2012 not only labelled Iran as ‘not free' but also gave it the highest score, making it the least free country on the Internet. Reporters Without Borders goes into details of what it describes as crackdowns on many of its netizens: "Iranians who cannot, or dare not, circumvent the censors' filtering system are doomed to use a regime-approved version of the Web, meaning one "cleansed" of any political, social and religious criticism. The national Internet has been a reality for years now, so the announcement of its launching primarily stems from political and nationalist motives."

The Iranian government has been investing heavily in hacking expertise and online propaganda, going as far as recruiting "hacking groups to fight "Western cultural influences" and online dissidents as well as promoting Iranian foreign policy objectives." Also expected to launch is a native national search engine, "Ya Haq", which will undoubtedly heavily filter search results.The internet can be an extreme and extremely liberal sphere, and it's no surprise a country notorious for its repulsion of outside influence would be seeking new ways to try and limit access to doesn't approve of. 

There's also the question of whether Tehran could really afford to cut off the internet. Already under financial pressure due to various sanctions, business is now dependent on being able to communicate worldwide. And it's unlikely that the government needs reminding that five days with no Internet cost Egypt "At least $90 million". Imagine what it would cost indefinitely.

However, there may less nefarious, but no less political, reasons for Iran's choice to move to its own domestic internet. Aside from the general virus rate in the Middle East being higher than large parts of the world, the increasing number of state-backed attacks on the country has been increasing steadily in the past couple of years. FLAME, Stuxnet and Duqu have all hit various systems in Iran, and with these malicious viruses attacking important infrastructure it's easy to understand the desire to retreat. There's also been Gauss, Madi and even one that played "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC at a Nuclear power station.

Despite calls for governments to stop, many predict an escalation of these cyber-attacks. India has recently given the go ahead to get involved with state-sponsored attacks and experts believe many more countries have similar programs of their own. Iran is by no means innocent in the hacking stakes. In 2010, Ebrahim Jabbari, a commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps declared that the IRGC had the world's second-largest cyber army at its disposal. In March, Iran was accused of launching an attack on the BBC's Persian service, and very recently attacks against JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Bank of America Corp were attributed to Iran, something which Tehran denies. As it gets more difficult to tell the difference between government-backed and individual-made malware, the chances of finger-pointing after an attack are likely and will only cause more global tension.

It's important to note the importance of the internet though; that instead of simply hitting a killswitch the way the Egyptian government did during their uprisings, the government recognised how big a part it plays in day-to-day life for people, organizations and the state. Tensions between Iran and the West are unlikely to calm down soon. While ‘Iranternet' may only be a side-effect, it's indicative of the greater political problems the country is facing, and linked to the shifting role of the internet as a weapon and near-constant source of problems and crime. But if the government pulls this idea off, might this start a chain reaction of isolated internet paranoia?

By Dan Swinhoe, Editorial, Assistant, IDG Connect