Shielding official and sensitive information from foreign attack, or the precursor to an unparalleled internet shut-down? The debate about Iran’s soon-to-launch closed national computer network continues to polarise opinion.
Last month, Iran’s government unveiled a plan to take government agencies, banks, universities, businesses and military departments offline. Its stated intention was to disconnect them from the global internet and build in its place a closed national computer network. One report suggests at least 10,000 computers are already connected
“The plan is provide a faster, safer and cheaper way for Iranian users to access Iranian websites,” Tehran-based IT expert Pouya Nasirabadi told Al Jazeera. “Access to sites outside Iran is going to be the same like always. Of course some restrictions based on the government policy will remain.”
Closed networks are simply a series of connected computers not linked to the global internet. They are frequently used for restricted or sensitive networks like payment systems, computers that run factories, or systems that control satellites. Without a connection to the internet, the chance of being hacked or infected with viruses is greatly reduced.
It appears the development of Iran’s secure network has accelerated following the 2010 attacks by the Stuxnet computer worm, which caused centrifuges to fail at the main Iranian uranium enrichment facility. The system is expected to be fully operational by March 2013.
“Some websites, like websites for national gas and oil company or the nuclear energy company, they have to be safer. Obviously it will be safer for these sites if they were not accessible from the entire internet,” said Nasirabadi. “Open internet access for some government agencies and sites can provide another way for attackers, hackers to access these sites. They don’t need to be accessible from outside Iran, so internet access is not required and is not beneficial.”
Officials have said the threat to official government sites also comes from foreign powers, which are trying to disrupt Iran’s development of its resources.
“The national internet is cheaper than the global one, but also it is much more limited. I think people prefer the current global internet.”
– Mohamad Hasan
“The establishment of the national intelligence network will create a situation where the precious intelligence of the country won’t be accessible to these powers,” said Iranian Minister of Communication and Information Technology Reza Taqipour.
The case is also being made that the national network will benefit ordinary Iranians. They will be offered access to the domestic network at cheaper rates.
“Most of the benefits will go to the people, not the government. They will be able to browse the Iranian websites and Iranian content faster. Before the start of this project the access to Iranian websites had to go through travel outside Iran and come back. After this project is completed this entire traffic will be handled in the Iranian infrastructure,” said Nasirabadi.
Millions of websites, including Google and Gmail, are currently blocked by Iranian authorities. Many are considered to be un-Islamic. It’s not clear if the government plans to ever completely cut access to global websites. It has the ability to do so, but the idea is unlikely to find favour on the streets.
“Personally, I would like to use the global internet,” said one Iranian man, who preferred not to be named. “If they want to launch a domestic network that’s fine, but we should have both of them and everybody should decide which one is more suitable for them.”
“The national internet is cheaper than the global one, but also it is much more limited. I think people prefer the current global internet. Despite all the restrictions there are some ways to get around it such as using VPNs [virtual private networks]”, said another internet surfer, Mohamad Hasan.
Earlier this year, ahead of parliamentary elections, many Iranians found accessing email and internet social networking websites difficult. The sites were used to organise protests after the disputed 2009 presidential election. Using existing fiber optic cables to carry the new network, critics say the state-run network will make the surveillance of users much easier.
“Currently there is no plan, even long-term, to block the entire internet access,” said Nasirabadi. “Technically, anything can happen. But taking into account the amount of money and how much they are investing into internet infrastructure, and taking into account how much Iranian life and Iranian business is reliant on the internet, and also taking into account the talks we have had with government agencies and officials, I am pretty sure right now there is no plan to do it.”
Any proposal to cut access to the global internet may also find opposition in unexpected quarters. The country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has his own website in 13 languages, and accounts on Twitter and photo-sharing site Instagram. Any interruption to Iran’s global internet access is likely to also affect his followers.