BOB GARFIELD: Last year the Iranian government announced that it was developing a “Halal Internet,”an alternative to the World Wide Web that would censor, “dirty and unethical content” and be subject to monitoring and censorship by Iranian authorities. With the exception of China’s “Great Firewall” it is the most ambitious project by a government to censor the Web. The details of what the “Halal Internet” will look like are unclear, but we may soon find out. The Iranian government has just announced that it will be launching this spring.
Neal Ungerleider covers international technology and cyber security for Fast Company. Neal, welcome to the show.
NEAL UNGERLEIDER: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: The “Halal Internet” –
Tell me why this is safe for Muslim consumption, where the regular Internet is not.
NEAL UNGERLEIDER: It’s not so much safer Muslim consumption, it’s safe for Iranian government consumption. Right now the Iranian government’s worst fear is seeing the Arab Spring or other protests, even civil society protests like the ones we’re seeing in Russia right now, spread over to Iran. And they feel that having a nationwide closed national network which will work like the Internet, but be sealed off from the outside world, would be the easiest way to stop political dissent from entering the country.
In other to have websites on this “Halal Internet,” in order to post content to forums, to news sites, your personal ID number and your IP address will be registered with the Iranian government. So everything that goes on there, no matter how innocuous, will be tied to a user’s individual identity.
BOB GARFIELD: When you build an Intra-net of this scale, can you build this infrastructure in such a way that it’s impossible for people to escape it? Aren’t users of the “Halal Internet” just one dial-up connection away from the real Internet?
NEAL UNGERLEIDER: They are one dial-up connection from the real Internet. The fact is individual people are smart. Governments, on the whole, they’re dumb. There will always be loopholes, there will always be ways of circumventing any kind of censorship, doing satellite uplinks, using things called VPNs, virtual private networks and various other methods. It’ll just be a) very slow, and b) so difficult technically that it would take someone who’s a real, well, computer nerd in order to do it.
BOB GARFIELD: The “Halal Internet” is apparently going to be the ultimate step but not the only step that the regime has taken to suppress the free flow of information.
NEAL UNGERLEIDER: In January the Iranian government introduced legislation forcing all cyber cafes throughout the country to register the ID numbers and personal information of all users and to tie their activity to individual computers. This was coupled, at the same time, with massive slowdowns for Gmail, for Google, for Yahoo!, for Facebook, for Twitter, leading up to the Iranian election.
Right now, obviously, Iran’s in a very geopolitical place. The situation in Israel – Afghanistan, of course, is on their eastern border. The Arab nations which have been having the Arab Spring events are on the West, and Iran’s very worried that events happening outside their borders will spill over into Iran. And their worst nightmare is having to deal with massive, massive internal discontent. They figure that, though it’s expensive and will alienate the population, it’s better to create this national Internet and then to deal with the ramifications of that.
BOB GARFIELD: The Internet is vast. How in the world does the government intend to create the content to keep the population from just freaking when they switch off the World Wide Web and switch the “Halal Internet” on?
NEAL UNGERLEIDER: That’s the million-dollar question. We’re looking at two possible models. Either the Iranian government will provide the original content, including newspapers, magazines, government ministries and then leave it up to individual users to add content to that.
Or Option B, it’ll just start off being just like the regular Internet, with individual users making their own content but having everything unlike the regular Internet being censored and monitored. And we think Option B is more likely, given the fact that the Iranian government has had cash flow problems.
BOB GARFIELD: It just seems to me that politically the Iranian regime is making exactly the wrong move, taking away something that the public loves and perhaps distracts them from the dissatisfaction they might have living in a theocracy, because at least they have their Internet. It just seems like such a self-destructive exercise.
NEAL UNGERLEIDER: For the Iranian government, the name of the game right now is preventing another round of unrest similar to what we saw back in 2009. It’s a weird situation. It’s a weird dynamic because within the Iranian government there has always been this tension between quietly tolerating not so much anti-government – but at least ambivalent towards government - domestic cultural scene and this very totalitarian need to control and monitor all media and all culture.
The Iranian government’s fear is that high gasoline prices, high food prices and high unemployment might lead people in small towns who otherwise would support Ahmadinejad’s government, to come out in the streets and protest alongside western-minded Tehranis, which puts them in just a rock and a hard place.
BOB GARFIELD: I wonder if there will be in the “Halal Internet” an equivalent of my favorite item on the Internet, FAILBlog.org, ‘cause this whole enterprise might be Exhibit A.
NEAL UNGERLEIDER: It’s impossible for any government to seal off their citizens from the outside world. It did not even work in North Korea, which has a much more ambitious censorship scheme than Iran could ever dream of. And I’m sure that various activist organizations and communities such as Anonymous and LulzSec will likely have a field day with this.
BOB GARFIELD: Neal, thank you very much.
NEAL UNGERLEIDER: Thanks a lot, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Neal Ungerleider covers international technology and cyber security for Fast Company.