Iran’s government wrote to state-run organisations and private companies asking them for the foreign websites they rely on. This came to light 11 days after the authorities imposed a week-long internet blackout. It may be the aftermath of protests against a rise in fuel prices.
Some experts believe that this signals Tehran’s plan to operate a “white list” scheme. In a white list scheme, only sites with authorisation of the government are available. Officials did not comment on this.
However, the head of the Information Technology Organisation (ITO) – the Iranian government body responsible for cyber-space – has confirmed sending the letter.
Amir Nazemi says he was “obliged to make sure vital services were available”. He says he wants to let security officials know how the decision to shut down the internet had impacted the economy.
“I give the people who are watching this from a distance every right to be skeptical about the situation in the future,” he said.
Iran has discussed creating a “national internet” since 2005. The logic is to build domestic services that mirror the most popular foreign-based websites and apps and get Iranians to use them instead.
Although that’s yet to happen, Iran introduced an extensive internet censorship system, known as “filtering”. It has been related to the so-called Great Firewall of China.
The filtering system blocks users from accessing the most popular social networks and micro-blogging sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, as well as international news outlets such as BBC News.
Many feel that the government now wants to go one step further and instead of having a “blacklist” of banned websites, there will be a “white list” of permissible ones, with all others blocked.
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Mahsa Alimardani, of the human rights organisation, quoted Article 19. He says that the approach would be “in line with the worrying indications” that Iranian authorities want to restrict access to the uncensored internet for certain people “based on their professional and social circumstances”.
The existence of the letter became known after a copy circulated on social media. It gave Google Maps as an example of a “necessary foreign service”.
It said that the government wanted to “assess the likely problems” that people might have had in accessing online services.
Iran Wants “Clean Internet”
Ms. Alimardani said, “every mass protest movement in Iran, has resulted in further centralisation and regulation of the internet space”.
She pointed to the popular messaging app, Telegram which was blocked following the nationwide protests some two years ago, after which the authorities made “a failed attempt to push” domestic messaging apps such as Soroush.
During the recent internet shutdown, citizens were unable to access oversea independent news outlets.
On Saturday, the head of Basij, the state-controlled paramilitary force loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, said he wanted to see a “clean internet” in Iran.
Brig-Gen Gholamreza Soleimani adds that he hopes that one day the “national internet satisfies all the country’s needs”.
There are Iranian internet users and tech experts who have had years of experience circumventing censorship. “They can likely find ways to route around it,” Ms. Alimardani said.
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