HRANA News Agency – The first phase of Iran’s national Internet project has already been launched in the country’s government departments. Activists fear it’s a step toward cutting the population off from the World Wide Web.
In the past few days, several Iranian officials have mentioned the imminent launch of “our own Internet,” or what has previously been described as the “Halal Internet.”
Reza Taghipour, Iran’s information and communications minister, announced last week that the first phase of this nationwide project, which covers governmental institutions in 29 provinces, was set to launch on September 21. Taghipour said all Iranian universities would become part of this network by early 2013, putting Iran a step closer to disconnecting itself entirely from the global Internet.
As the news spread, government officials also announced that Iran was blocking access to Google and Gmail in reaction to the US-made anti-Islam film that has triggered protests across the Muslim world in recent weeks.
Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, an Iranian official from the online censorship department, claimed the decision had been made because of request from the censorship committee.
“We received the written announcement from the Internet censorship committee this morning,” Mohammad, a software engineer living in Tehran, told DW earlier this week. “The committee described it as an act against YouTube, but YouTube was already filtered out several months ago.”
Human rights organizations and Internet activists believe the move marks the beginning of the end for digital freedom in Iran. But Iranian officials deny this, insisting the project will work side by side with the global Internet to “improve its speed and quality.”
“Pulling out of the global Internet is like a self-imposed sanction. It’s not logical,” said Mohammad Soleimani, the former communications minister, in an interview with the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) last week.
“There is no clear, detailed information about Iran’s national Internet project,” Amin Sabeti, a London-based Iranian blog researcher, told DW. “But I do not think Iran has the necessary infrastructure to completely cut Iranian Internet users’ access to the Internet.” But, he adds that Iranian censorship authorities can sometimes do the unexpected, such as the decision to block Google and Gmail.
Many of the official statements coming out of Iran have been worrying. Two months ago, the Communications Ministry claimed that “in 95 percent of cases you don’t need a connection to the international network to use the Internet.” Meanwhile, many Iranian officials have said a “Halal Internet” is the best way to protect “religious and national values.”
Nearly 5 million websites, including social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, are already blocked in Iran, and the country is ranked fourth in a list of the world’s most censored countries compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists – after Eritrea, North Korea and Syria.