In Iran, a ‘halal’ internet means more control after unrest

Cyber-espionage is even used in Iran’s internal rivalries
Sunday 04/02/2018
© Yaser Ahmed for The Arab Weekly
© Yaser Ahmed for The Arab Weekly

DUBAI - Guns drawn, Iranian intelligence agents rushed into the apartment of a Washington Post reporter in Tehran. Threatening to kill Jason Rezaian in front of his wife, Yeganeh, the 20 agents in the July 2014 raid tore through their belongings and rifled through drawers, clothes and valuables for an hour.

However, perhaps their most eagerly sought target wasn’t exactly inside the house: They forced the couple to hand over passwords to their e-mail and social media profiles.

That raid demonstrated how much of a threat Iran’s theocratic government sees in the internet. It has long sought to strictly control cyberspace and social media and, thereby, the flow of information to the public.

The Islamic Republic’s relationship with the world wide web is far more complicated than simple repression.

In the past four years, authorities have encouraged wider use of the internet among Iranians, hoping to generate the benefits of a more modern economy.

As a result, there has been a proliferation of devices, including those that spread the startling protests across Iran that opened 2018. The government suffocated the flare-up, in part by shutting off key social media and messaging apps. However, the lesson was clear: The same oxygen that can resuscitate commerce can give breath to potential revolt.

Iranian authorities’ solution has been to create a “halal net,” Iran’s locally controlled version of the internet that restricts what the public can see.

“The Islamic Republic is not black and white. It shows a myriad of contradictions and its internet policy I think is one of the great examples of those contradictions,” said Sanam Vakil, an associate fellow at Chatham House. “The government has taken the internet and effectively used it for its own purposes and has realised the dangers of it as well.”

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, how information spreads across mass media has been tightly controlled across a country of 80 million people that’s nearly two-and-a-half times the size of Texas.

The internet helped collapse that distance. During Iran’s 2009 protests surrounding the disputed re-election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, social media spread word of the events and allowed videos of the shooting death of Neda Agha Soltan to be seen by the world.

Even before the 2009 protests, Iran blocked access to YouTube. Twitter and Facebook.

The chief difference between then and the recent protests was the sheer number of smartphones. In 2014, an estimated 2 million Iranians possessed one. Today, estimates suggest Iranians own 48 million such devices.

That explosive growth was spurred by the administration of President Hassan Rohani. Officials allowed more mobile phone service providers to offer faster internet access and encrypted messaging platform like Telegram spread like wildfire.

When the government blocked Telegram as well as Instagram, it helped smother the protests. Notably, however, Telegram’s silencing quickly brought complaints from businesspeople who use it to promote their goods.

The danger — and potential — of the internet as a weapon came into focus for Iran when it faced the world’s first cyber-weapon almost a decade ago.

At the height of tensions between Tehran and the West over its nuclear programme, thousands of centrifuges enriching uranium at Iran’s underground Natanz facility suddenly began spinning themselves to death. They had been hit by the Stuxnet computer virus, widely believed to be a US and Israeli creation.

Iran worked to strike back. Among the most spectacular cyber-attacks attributed to Iran is Shamoon, a virus that hit the state-run giant Saudi Arabian Oil Company and Qatari natural gas producer RasGas, deleting data on hard drives and displaying a picture of a burning American flag on computer screens.

Analysts and security experts say many of the hackers receive backing from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a powerful paramilitary and economic force in the country answerable only to Khamenei himself.

Cyber-espionage is even used in Iran’s internal rivalries, with attacks on members of the government, particularly officials in Rohani’s Foreign Ministry, a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace claimed.

The idea of Iran setting up its own “halal,” — “permissible” — internet first came in 2011. It’s evolved into what’s known as the National Information Network (NIN).

It is essentially a net neutrality supporter’s nightmare: The network has some 500 government-approved websites that stream content far faster than those based abroad, which are intentionally slowed, a recent report by the Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said. Service providers offer cheaper packages to customers accessing only NIN sites.

Firuzeh Mahmoudi, executive director of the San Francisco-based group United for Iran, said authorities have had success in getting businesses to operate on the NIN. The more they do so, he warned, “the easier it will be for them to shut down or throttle the real internet when they want to.”

(The Associated Press)