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Iran’s network in a bottle

Forget censoring the World Wide Web. Why not just build a state-controlled internet of your own?

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istock photos; Globe staff digital illustration/Dan Zedek

In May, just a few weeks before the third anniversary of the Web-savvy Iranian protests of 2009, Internet users in Iran received some strange news.

Suddenly, anyone with an e-mail address hosted by a foreign company—Gmail, Hotmail, and the like—was no longer allowed to contact local banks from that address. The government decreed that banking transactions could take place only via in-country e-mail services. Iran’s more than 8 million Internet users were accustomed to online censorship, but this was something different: an order intended to keep a key aspect of online life strictly within Iran’s borders. Technology observers and Iran experts agreed this wasn’t an isolated incident. It was part of a long-term plan.

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The Iranian government, which presides over one of the most educated and connected populations in the Middle East, is building an Internet all its own. Observers expect it will be fully operational as soon as next year. Iran’s so-called national or halal Internet will be a kind of anti-Internet—a self-contained loop within Iran’s borders featuring only regime-approved Iranian sites, and cut off from the World Wide Web.

A closed national network like that might seem implausible, but it’s not unique. Iran is on target to join a small club of countries with such bottled, state-constructed alternatives to the Internet. North Korea and Cuba also sponsor state-run networks designed to keep their citizens from ever having a peek at what the rest of the world knows as the Web.

Even as the Internet continues its explosive growth, and even as it creates hopes for freedom in, for example, the countries of the Arab Spring, repressive states are learning to use online technology to do precisely the opposite: to create and maintain wholly unfree networks of their own, designed not to connect their people to the world, but to fence them off. Their existence is a sharp rebuke to the Western idea that online connectivity always points, slowly but surely, to greater openness.

“It’s not enough just to control the media. Today, if you’re afraid of dissent, it’s important also to be able to control what people do online,” said Lucie Morillon, a Net-freedom specialist for Reporters Without Borders. “You have governments who are clearly trying to strengthen their control of the Internet by making sure people would be limited to a
version they have approved.”

A closer look at these walled-off systems reveals a strange landscape, full of official deceptions about what exists on the World Wide Web, sites that seem to have been trapped in amber in 1995, and sanitized rip-offs of the Internet’s most popular destinations. Altogether, these closed networks show off the imaginative ways that governments are learning to engineer a world that feels connected, but is in fact precisely the opposite.

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‘If Iran’s national intranet gets up and running, users could face a choice: either surf a bleak and balky Internet, or a sleek, custom-built intranet created by the regime.’

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When the World Wide Web arose in the 1990s, it was a largely unregulated space, ripe for free communication among users. But in the past decade, a kind of counter-revolution has taken effect. More and more, governments are successfully taking on the open Web—watchdog groups say more than 40 governments currently restrict their citizens’ Internet use. The usual, familiar model involves censoring content on a case-by-case basis: The state determines that certain topics or modes of expression are threatening, then blocks related sites, comments, and search terms. China is perhaps the best-known example here: The Chinese government’s tireless censoring of subversive content has come to be known as the “Great Firewall.”

But other governments go to lengths that make the Chinese seem lenient. Turkmenistan and Myanmar have had some of the most extreme bans; essentially, they’ve hobbled the Internet to the point where it resembles an intranet like the one Iran is building. Turkmenistan simply blacks out the vast majority of the Internet: Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are reported to be fully blocked, as are countless other sites. The result is what Reporters Without Borders has called “a ‘Turkmenet’ purged of any political or social topic.” Myanmar’s recently ousted military junta was just as thorough in its totalitarian repurposing of the Web, but used a different approach. The regime used a process known as “whitelisting”: Instead of sifting through the Internet and picking sites to block, the dictatorship simply kept a small list of sites that could be seen inside the country at all. Even now, that legacy remains. The newly elected government has loosened Web restrictions, but its continuing censorship has led Reporters Without Borders to designate it an “enemy of the Internet.”

Then there are the countries that have done what Iran is planning to do: take even more control over online life by building their own alternative networks from scratch. No country has achieved this goal more completely than North Korea. There, the only online experience that anyone outside of elite party circles can ever have is on kwangmyong, a system whose name roughly translates as “bright star.”

Kwangmyong offers a vision of what the Internet might look like if it had been invented by Kim Jong Il. What little we know about it comes from official North Korean television broadcasts, as well as a handful of journalists and defectors who have seen it first-hand. Their reports describe a system, available only in some urban libraries and schools, with in-country e-mail and rudimentary informational sites that seem “stuck in mid-nineties HTML,” according to Martyn Williams, a researcher who runs a news site called NorthKoreaTech.org.

The result is a titanic achievement of information control. “I’m sure if you ask a North Korean what an e-mail address is, the vast majority would not know,” said Morillon.

Even in a nation where access to the World Wide Web is more widespread, a walled-garden network can become a lasting and effective tool. The shining example here is Cuba. It offers a two-tiered system in which access to the global Internet exists, but most people still end up using a closed-off substitute.

The island gets very slow, satellite-based Internet access, but a byzantine permit system keeps the global Web out of everyday Cubans’ homes. There are some black-market connections available, but these are expensive and risky to maintain. To log onto the rest of the world’s Internet legally, Cubans typically have to make an exorbitantly expensive visit to a computer terminal in a hotel or foreign embassy.

As a result, the more appealing alternative is RedCubana, a regime-built, self-contained network. Research group Freedom House estimates that, of the more than 1.5 million Cubans who use any kind of digital network, 87 percent of them use only RedCubana. It features national e-mail, informational sites, and low-tech knockoffs of Facebook and Wikipedia. (Not surprisingly, the Wikipedia knockoff, EcuRed, doesn’t allow free editing of articles.) “It kind of looks like 1995,” said Sam Kellogg, an undergraduate at Lewis & Clark College who recently lived in Cuba to research computer use there. “It looks like everybody’s using Netscape Navigator.”

There’s no indication that it’s going away. “A lot of persons use [RedCubana] because it’s an opportunity to establish some practical information. But it’s very limited, very controlled,” said Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, a Cuban dissident blogger, speaking from Havana. “You can find persons who have never connected [to the Internet], not a single minute. Even professionals don’t know how to manage in an interactive world.”

That kind of two-tiered system is a likely future for Iranians, observers say. The government already keeps Internet speeds artificially slow, for monitoring and censoring purposes. So cutting off all access to the World Wide Web may not even be necessary: It’s enough to simply offer a fast, reliable alternative to the usual Iranian Internet experience. If the national intranet gets up and running, users could face a choice whenever they want to spend some time on the computer: either surf a bleak and balky Internet, or a sleek, custom-built intranet created by the regime.

The Iranian government has been using nationalism to sell the public on its plans. Companies like Google and Facebook are often portrayed as agents of American soft power. The recently uncovered US-Israeli cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear facilities—which included the debilitating computer worm known as Stuxnet—has only made anti-Internet arguments stronger. “Stuxnet does feed into this sense that Western services are agents in a soft war and that Western services are insecure,” said Collin Anderson, a tech-security analyst who has uncovered documents about Iran’s intranet plans.

Anderson and other researchers say the transition is already underway. A few weeks ago, the regime presented legislation to build the national intranet. It has been moving all government websites onto in-country servers (by some accounts, it’s already repatriated 90 percent of its Web presence). Recently, the regime temporarily and successfully banned websites that protect themselves via Secure Sockets Layers—common tools that prevent governments from monitoring a site.

All the while, no organized opposition has formed in Iran to stop the plan’s forward march. The plugged-in protests of 2009 seem like a relic of the distant past.

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Of course, it remains to be seen if Iran can make good on its plans. The Internet itself relies on a vast combination of both private and government infrastructure, and building an anti-Internet in a technologically sophisticated nation requires nationwide cables dedicated solely to the intranet system; routers, switches, and data centers; and new content for government-approved versions of popular sites. Like many nations, Iran has a headstart because the government has near-total control over the telecom industry, but it’s also reportedly offering private companies incentives to help construct the network.

All in all, it’s an endeavor that demands huge resources in terms of both money and labor. “A data center is not software you can look at online and copy,” said Mahmood Enayat, director of the Iran Media Program at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a physical thing. It’s kind of complicated, like having a nuclear reactor. It’s the same level of engineering.”

That bottled state networks are succeeding despite all these requirements says a lot about how repressive regimes can use the same tools underlying a free Internet to very different effect. Building and maintaining a national intranet isn’t about brute destruction—it requires creativity, technical knowledge, and finesse. Telecom ingenuity, like that seen in Iran, can be used to build walls around societies, not just to liberate them.

In that sense, in an era when the Internet often seems like air the world breathes, walled networks offer “a good thought experiment,” said tech theorist Douglas Rushkoff. They remind us that online connections do not necessarily promote openness and that democracy is unlikely to arise just because people can connect on the Web. Myanmar offers a telling example. Once the military junta was dissolved in 2011, Internet access opened up substantially. But think about that sequence of events: Democracy created Net freedom—not the other way around.

“All of these concepts that we like to think of as inherent to the Internet on some fundamental, technological level—uncensorability and freedom and all of that—are active choices by the Internet’s keepers,” Rushkoff said. “There, but for the graces of government and whoever’s controlling the stuff, go we.”

Abraham Riesman is a writer who lives in New York City.
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