Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Iran Struggles To Create An Intranet To Block Global Sites


Whenever protests start up in Iran, everyone starts paying attention to the Internet. The government basically shut it down back in November when people protested high fuel prices. This tension over online access goes back years in Iran. NPR's Peter Kenyon has that story.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Iran has been talking about restricting access to the World Wide Web for decades. And the idea of an Iran-only intranet, which the government calls a national information network, is still popular among some conservatives. Iran's head of information technology operations, Amir Nazemi (ph), told an Iranian television news channel recently that shutting down the Internet was a natural response to the crisis sparked by the demonstrations across the country. He's heard through the channel's interpreter.


AMIR NAZEMI: (Through interpreter) If there was a road or a freeway and terrorists come and do something, what's the first thing you will do to the freeway? You will shut it down.

KENYON: Questioned about using the term terrorist to describe demonstrators who began by protesting a 50% rise in gasoline prices, Nezami backtracked slightly.


NAZEMI: (Through interpreter) I've said this before. We have to be able to separate those who are protesting for the livelihood. They have to be honored. We must listen to their concerns and see what their problems are from those who took terrorist actions and committed sabotage.

KENYON: But for young Iranians who have grown up in an increasingly interconnected world, the idea that the government could block citizens from accessing outside online content is abhorrent. Amir Rashidi, an Iranian Internet security and digital rights researcher in New York City, says in the early 2000s, under hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the government wanted to block Iranians from seeing online content from outside the country.

AMIR RASHIDI: I believe the goal in the Ahmadinejad government was basically creating a wall around Iran and disconnect people from the outside world.

KENYON: As with many major projects in Iran, however, Rashidi says it was plagued with some familiar problems.

RASHIDI: However, that project didn't finish because of all the corruption. Those people who were in charge at the Ministry of Telecommunications, they were not really expert to do such a thing.

KENYON: The government has tried for decades to steer Iranians toward approved messaging apps. But Mahsa Alimardani, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford and an Internet researcher with the human rights group Article 19 says few people use them.

MAHSA ALIMARDANI: People don't really trust these platforms. If you talk to folks and you're like, are you worried about another Internet shut down, are you downloading the national messengers, very few are saying they're actually buying into that. It seems that folks would rather, you know, use SMS or do normal phone calls than rely on these national messengers that have had such bad branding and seem so threatening.

KENYON: What people feel threatened by, she says, is the government using those apps to spy on them.

ALIMARDANI: There is that general fear and it's, like, a general knowledge within Iranian culture that if the government has an opportunity to be surveilling you, they will be surveilling you. And it's just kind of embedded in the culture, embedded about how people go about their daily lives.

KENYON: Not surprisingly, she says, the government is using American sanctions on Iran to justify its behavior. Every time a big Web company decides to block online service to Iran, officials in Tehran use it to promote the country's need to be self-reliant.

ALIMARDANI: The sanctions are legitimizing the government's efforts to create a national Internet by saying sanctions is causing a massive amount of Google infrastructure from being blocked. What's going to stop the Americans from cutting off the international Internet over land and submarine cables that bring the Internet to Iran from being shut off?

KENYON: This isn't only an issue in Iran. In Russia, a new sovereign Internet law just took effect, aiming to disconnect from the outside world. Iranian authorities would like to do something similar before protests start up again. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOBACCO'S "WIG BLOWS OFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.