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Iran's plan to UNPLUG the INTERWEBS back from the dead

But web free of smut (and dissent) is probably just a pipe dream

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Analysis Iran's plans to unplug consumers from the internet – replacing the network with an insular walled-garden intranet restricted to the Islamic republic – are unlikely to come to anything.

A story about a supposed alternative 'clean' alternative network has been doing the rounds, alleging that the repressive state was building a custom electronic mail service and a national search engine called Ya Haq – Oh Just (truthful) One – a supposed replacement for Google. The story has since been officially denied by an Iranian official as an "April Fools' Day joke, although it appeared to originate as a comment from the country's Communications Minister Reza Taghipour. The purported system would be heavily regulated with blocks on foreign content and services, but businesses and the elite would still be able to access the wider internet.

The concept is not new, but supposed plans to deploy the network within five months – now officially denied – have put the topic back in the news this week.

Reporters Without Borders said that the proposed system "consists of an intranet designed ultimately to replace the international internet and to discriminate between ordinary citizens and the 'elite' (banks, ministries and big companies), which will continue to have access to the international internet", Ars Technica reports.

The Iranian government's existing efforts to censor the internet were in response to the role the web has taken in campaigns of political dissent inside the country and free expression more generally.

Iran's religious leaders recently agreed to set up a Supreme Council of Cyberspace to regulate Iranian internet usage. Cleric Hamid Shahriari, a member of the council, said it was concerned that cyberspace can be "used for exchanging information and conducting espionage", the Wall Street Journal reports.

The espionage concerns probably centre on the use of the Stuxnet worm to sabotage industrial control systems at the heart of Iran's controversial nuclear programme.

Iran already heavily censors the internet but taking this scheme even further is unlikely to succeed for multiple reasons, both technical and economic.

Burma created something akin to an insular intranet two years ago but other countries - however repressive - have not followed its lead. "Shutting down the internet is a drastic solution that can create problems for the authorities and can hurt the economy," Reporters Without Borders reports.

Unless Iran bans international phone calls then human rights activists could set up an ISP in neighbouring countries that Iran's oppressed population might be able to use, something which happened during the Egyptian Arab Spring protests. In addition, the US is reportedly looking to develop technology for a "shadow internet" or "internet in a suitcase" that will enable the creation of an independent connection to the international internet from inside a repressed country, maintaining internet access even if the local government pulls the plug.

More straightforwardly, the unfettered internet access enjoyed by business might be taped. Iran would still be connected to routing and DNS systems. Cryptographers and security researchers, who have already developed mechanisms for disguising Tor traffic within Skype calls and surfing the web (very slowly) using DNS queries, are almost certain to get around Iran's restrictions.

Reporters Without Borders notes that Iran’s national internet scheme has been subject to frequent delays. It describes the scheme as "frequently announced and always postponed" in the latest edition of its Enemies of the Internet report. Iran unsurprisingly features prominently in RWB's list of enemies of the net, thanks to its existing internet censorship regime which already blocks access to many foreign websites, social networks and other web services. It characterises the national internet plan as more likely a piece of political posturing than a genuine project.

"Several times in 2011, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, true to his nationalist policies, announced the creation of a national web, a 'clean' version of the internet with its own search engine and messaging service," Reporters Without Borders explains. "This may mean two different types of access, one for the authorities and another for the rest of the population, similar to the way the internet is now structured in Burma. Belarus requires commercial companies to register the websites they have set up in the country. This does not affect news and information sites for the time being."

Censorship schemes have already been put into place in several countries. The schemes, which block or slow down net connections to stop the exchange of photos or videos, have already proven effective at achieving the repressive goals of regimes in Iran and elsewhere.

"Some countries such as North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Cuba, and also Iran, censor internet access so effectively that they restrict their populations to local intranets that bear no resemblance to the World Wide Web," Reporters Without Borders concludes. "The decision by Twitter among others to apply location-specific censorship confirms the tendency to fall back on national webs.

"In 2011, the fragmentation of the internet gathered pace. Web users were granted varying access depending on where they were connected. This is contrary to the original concept of the founders of the web. Digital segregation is spreading. Solidarity between defenders of a free internet, accessible to all, is more than ever needed for the information to continue to flow." ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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