Bending the Internet: Iran Brings the National Information Network Online

3 MINS READJun 19, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
A laptop screen displays the message that pops up when users try to access Facebook, a blocked website in Iran.

A laptop screen displays the message that pops up when users try to access Facebook, a blocked website in Iran.

  • Wary of the internet's power as a tool for political dissent and even revolution, Iran's conservatives have pushed for more stringent oversight online.
  • Part of the strategy involves banning foreign apps and services, such as Telegram, and offering users closely monitored domestic alternatives.
  • Iran's intranet, the National Information Network, will help authorities in this endeavor by giving them greater control over internet users, internet service providers and online content.

For as long as Iran has had cyberspace, the Iranian government has been trying to control it. The spate of color revolutions in the 2000s, followed by the Green Movement in Iran in 2009, further illustrated the dangers of electronic communication, prompting the Islamic republic's hard-line factions to push for more stringent oversight online. And since the United States has begun backing a policy akin to regime change and supporting domestic opposition movements, the need to control the internet is greater now for Tehran than perhaps ever before.

The Big Picture

The internet is constantly evolving — and with it, national and global policies to regulate the technology's use. Unfiltered access to and unmonitored movement of information pose a strategic risk for many states. Now that most countries have roughly 25 years of experience honing their strategies to handle the freedoms and cultural changes that the internet unleashed on the world, their tactics for manipulating its use are becoming more sophisticated. This is the second installment of a five-part series examining the policies and tactics Iran, China, Turkey and Russia have devised to mitigate the threats — and exploit the opportunities — of the internet.

Iran has long employed internet filtering to weed out content deemed ideologically inappropriate, to block foreign apps and information, and to stifle opposition movements at home. At the same time, however, its technologically proficient population demands connectivity. The messaging app Telegram, in particular, has become a critical line of communication in business and political life. The trouble is, Telegram's encryption keeps user messages away from the prying eyes of intelligence services — a big liability for the government. For that reason, Tehran banned the app in April and has been promoting a domestic alternative, Soroush, in its place. Underpinning this strategy is the National Information Network (NIN), whose final phase entered service last summer.

A chart shows the trends for Freedom on the Net scores for Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and the United States

The network functions as a domestic intranet that hosts Iranian websites and services — all under Tehran's watchful gaze. To access it, users and website owners must sign up with the government, an arrangement that empowers Iranian officials to coerce internet service providers to comply with their demands. And because the NIN is linked to the global internet only at certain access points, Iranian authorities can sever the connection as they see fit without disturbing the domestic network. That means Iran's government can cut access to the global internet for prolonged periods, as it did during the Green Movement protests, without taking the entire country offline.

With the NIN up and running, the Iranian government is now working on rolling out more homegrown apps like Soroush to replace foreign platforms and services, though users so far have been hesitant to make the switch. President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, meanwhile has pushed back against Iran's conservatives in their attempts to further control the internet. But as the United States tightens the screws on Iran over its regional activities and aspirations, Rouhani will have to concede to the hard-liners.

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