Iran is sealing off the web as it rolls out a domestic intranet

The smashed computer of a Tehran University student who supported the opposition in the 2009 elections.
The smashed computer of a Tehran University student who supported the opposition in the 2009 elections.
Image: AP Photo
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Iran cut off access to most virtual private networks (VPNs) in what appears to be a final step toward implementing its “halal” intranet, an entirely domestic version of the internet controlled by the government.

VPNs are used by many Iranians to route around censorship of websites like Facebook, YouTube, and many international news outlets. “Within the last few days, illegal VPN ports in the country have been blocked,” Ramezanali Sobhani-Fard, head of the Iranian parliament’s information and technology committee, told state media, according to a Reuters translation. “Only legal and registered VPNs can from now on be used.”

It’s not entirely clear why Iran moved to cut off the loophole now, but the timing is suggestive. Government officials had previously said the domestic intranet would be ready by this month, which could mean the VPN ban is a precursor to a wider rollout of the new system. And the presidential election, Iran’s first since widespread protests broke out in 2009, is coming up in June.

Iran hasn’t said how it plans to implement the domestic intranet. North Korea, for instance, restricts almost all internet traffic to a government-controlled network, effectively sealing off the country from the rest of the internet. Iran could do that, as well, but access to international websites is essential for an increasing number of Iranian businesses, and severe censorship could inflame a restive populace in Tehran.

Instead, Iran seems likely to provide its own version of the internet while limiting access to the broader World Wide Web by blocking some sites and slowing down access to others, which it already does. But at sensitive moments, like the upcoming election, Iran could seal off the web entirely, and the new VPN ban will help enforce that sequestration. A robust domestic intranet, complete with its own alternative to YouTube, could make the restrictions viable, though Iranians have previously been successful agitating for access to international web services like Google’s Gmail.

The June election is likely to solidify the power of supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who said earlier this month, “Those who may offer general advice about the elections—and it could be out of compassion—that the elections should be like this or that, should take care not to further the goal of the enemy.” President Mahmood Ahmadinejad, facing term limits, isn’t on the ballot. All of the candidates to replace him are seen as loyal to Khamenei. The most viable opposition candidates have been in jail since the 2009 protests.