Iran is giving its citizens fast internet, but cutting them off from the rest of the online world

Gated access.
Gated access.
Image: Reuters/Raheb Homavandi
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Iranian officials aren’t explicitly banning internet access, but they are doing everything they can to wean residents off the world wide web and steer them toward a local, walled alternative.

Eleven years after announcing plans for the “National Network of Data,” Iran finally completed the first phase of the project on Aug. 28, with the next two phases slated to be finished in February and March 2017 respectively. The government claims it has installed high-speed fiber optic cables and building local data centers, which work 60 times faster than current offerings, according to Tasnim News Agency.

But despite its promised high speeds, stable and safe connections, and low cost, the state-owned service still does not give Iran’s citizens what the UN has labelled a basic human right: an open Internet experience. When an Iranian IP address signs onto the network, it can only access local sites (though foreign sites will be allowed with special permission granted by state authorities.)

Iran has a well-documented history of censorship behind it, so the attempt to capture users for its domestic web ecosystem has raised red flags. Iranian netizens “using government sanctioned emails, search engines, browsers, social networks, and E-government services, significantly increases the government’s ability for surveillance on domestic Internet users,”according to a report by British human rights group Article 19 published earlier this year. The Middle Eastern country already ranks towards the “worst” end of the scale for obstacles to access, limits on content and violation of user rights, according to civil rights NGO Freedom House.

The theocratic government in Iran has already heavily censored internet content relating to pornography, art, news, and more. Research shows that the country has purged almost all of the 500 most popular websites on the web, even before the domestic service was launched.

According to a March 2014 report published by the London-based digital advocacy action lab Small Media wrote in a March, major foreign websites, such as Google and Yahoo, will be available on the National Network of Data. It’s not yet clear whether the network will offer access to the large social media sites. Currently, sites like Facebook and Twitter are banned. And though users can gain access to social media platforms like these via virtual private networks (VPNs), getting caught doing so can lead to severe consequences. Recently, the conservative nation cracked down on over 450 WhatsApp, Telegram, and Instagram accounts (link in Persian) deemed to be “immoral.” This May, eight people were arrested for failing to don hijabs in their Instagram photos.

And it seems unlikely that the new National Network of Data will be particularly welcoming of any sort of dissent. According to the BBC, the government plans to use the network to “promote Islamic content and raise digital awareness among the public.”