Iran’s ‘Halal’ version of the Internet

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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This week, Iran’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology has taken robust and unprecedented actions regarding the use of the Internet and email for communication purposes. Iranian officials have announced that they launched their own “national email service” as an alternative to Western email services such as Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, etc. This action will require all Iranian citizens to sign up for the new “national email service” to “safely” communicate with Iran’s government officials.

Internet users and account holders across the country will have to provide their full name, national identification number, home address, postcode, and their local post office in order to register and sign up for this service. Internet users and account holders will have to go to to sign up to the service (which is not free) after which users will receive an email address. This national email service is intended to be mandatory for all Iranian citizens.

It is crucial to point out that the Islamic Republic of Iran has a relatively large population of young people. Official statistics suggest that Iran has some 32 million Internet users. Approximately some 40% of Iran's 75 million person population is estimated to have access to the Internet, as well as many other online services such as bill payment sites and online banking.

The next plan--and most intriguing step--which was announced by Mohammad Hasan Nami, Iran's Minister of Communication and Information Technology, is that the Iranian government is planning to switch Iranians to a domestic Internet network called “Halal” Shiite Internet, which would be in compliance with Shiite Islamic laws and isolated from the World Wide Web. In order to check any website, Iranian citizens will have to go through Iran’s national Internet. Though this is alternative internet comes with a high connection speed, it is fully monitored and censored. On the other hand, the World Wide Web will be completely blocked or the government will reduce the international Internet’s connection speed, as well as it will increase the cost of subscribing to the international internet, to make the use of it completely undesirable.

The Iranian government points out that this move is intended to further facilitate the interaction between the citizens and the government, Mohammad Hasan Nami was quoted saying by the semi-official Mehr news agency. He said, “For mutual interaction and communication between the government and the people, from now on every Iranian will receive a special email address along with their postcode…. With the assignment of an email address to every Iranian, government interactions with the people will take place electronically.” Nevertheless, there is a considerable amount of skepticism and criticism about these recent moves by the Islamic Republic of Iran to “nationalize” the internet and create a Shiite version of “Halal” internet.

This year, the Islamic Republic of Iran was among five states that were listed as enemies of the Internet by the independent organization, Reporters Without Borders for Freedom of Information. Assad of Syria’s regime (Iran’s closest ally in the region), Vietnam, and China are among other countries that appear on the list. The report, which concentrated on surveillance and government interference in people’s lives revealed that the Islamic Republic of Iran has used, in an unprecedented way, techniques including active monitoring, spying, as well as blocking and filtering the dissemination of sensitive information critical of Iran’s ruling clerics.

These techniques are used primarily to monitor dissidents and/or those who disagree with the Shiite and revolutionary principles of the regime. In addition, these tactics, which were used during the previous elections, have been developed to prevent activities designed to mobilize people for political or economic reforms from taking place. According to recent reports, Iranian leaders and security forces are in grave violation of freedom of information and human rights due to their intense surveillance of news networks.

On the other hand, Internet surveillance by Iranian official has actively led to the torture and imprisonment of journalists and dissidents on a regular basis. For example, last year the death of blogger Sattar Beheshti while he was being interrogated by Fata forces in jail, was one of the few instances which prompted a national and international outcry.

The Iranian government runs, monitors or controls almost all of the country’s
institutions which regulates, legislates, and manages internet and telecommunication networks. When this sector was privatized--unsurprisingly by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps--the most loyal institution to the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei won the rights. The government has recently passed sweeping laws that allow it to conduct close surveillance of the Internet. These laws legitimized the control, filtering, and monitoring of Internet Service Providers, in addition to hacking email content and Skype chats to name a few.

The Internet--like any other entity in Iran--has been politicized by Iranian leaders. The Internet connection speed at any given time has become an indicator of the political situation in the country at that moment. For example, the Internet’s connection speed is extremely slow during anniversaries and important event as the government attempts to block the circulation of credible news, photos, and videos.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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