Iran’s National Information Network

November 9, 2012

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Categories: Articles, ASL19, News and Announcements, Research News

In September 2012 [Farsi], the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) announced [Farsi] that it is in the process of completing the first phase of establishing the National Information Network (NIN), also known as Internet-e Paak (in Farsi) or the “Pure” Internet. Iranian officials describe the NIN as an independent countrywide network whose content is “pure” and “compatible with religious and revolutionary values” [Farsi].

Many Iranian Internet users are worried that after the NIN is created, the authorities will cut off access to the global Internet, including popular services such as Gmail and Google. Officials, however, have assured the public that they do not plan to shut down Internet access. They claim that the NIN and the Internet will instead be two separate networks [Farsi], where the former provides access to local content and services and the latter allows global connectivity.

The NIN project consists of [Farsi] three major phases. The first phase is the construction of two networks to separate local and international online traffic. By March 2013, which is the planned end of this phase, the NIN will be ready as an independent high-speed network [Farsi] that connects all government organizations and covers all provinces [Farsi] of Iran.

In the second phase [Farsi], to be completed by March 2014, all Iranian websites will be hosted on local servers and registered on .ir domains. Until recently, many government websites were hosted on servers outside of Iran. For example, the website of the Iranian parliament was hosted on servers in the United States. However, the government has since moved many of its websites [Farsi] to Iranian servers and is planning to move the remaining sites within this phase of the project.

In the third and final stage, to be completed in March 2016, the government will provide domestically developed applications and services, including the Ghasedak [Farsi] Operating System (OS), Chaapaar [Farsi] email service, and Fajr [Farsi] search engine. Ghasedak OS and Chaapaar email are already available, with the latter claiming to have more than 200,000 users. The government has allocated one billion US dollars for implementation of the NIN.

The main goals for establishing the NIN are as follows:

  • A “pure” network that does not need to be censored
    According to officials, the main reason [Farsi] for establishing the NIN is to create a “safe” and “pure” network for Iranian Internet users that is “free from immoral, corrupt, and violent content on the Internet”. The NIN will also be a medium [Farsi] through which the government will propagate the revolutionary Islamic discourse to young people. Given the government’s full control over the NIN’s content, censorship and filtering will no longer be necessary.

 

  • A defence mechanism against cyber-attacks
    According to the government, the NIN will not be vulnerable [Farsi] to cyber-attacks since it will be separate and independent from the global Internet. The degree of separation between NIN and the Internet determines the vulnerability of the NIN to cyber-attacks that are launched through the Internet. However, it is still not clear to what extent the NIN relies on the existing Internet network infrastructure and whether these two networks are completely separated or cross paths at some points. In addition, not all attacks are launched through the Internet. The Stuxnet malware attack against computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities, for example, reached its target using removable storage devices.

 

  • A faster and more reliable connection
    According to officials, the NIN will have a larger bandwidth compared to the existing Internet network and, access to the NIN will be much faster [Farsi]. In addition, the officials claim that the NIN is more reliable [Farsi] compared to the Internet, which can be disrupted due to various reasons, including physical damage to the cables that connect Iran to the global network. Finally, the officials argue that the transfer of local traffic from the Internet network to the NIN will free up bandwidth and increases Internet speed [Farsi].

Iranian officials have been assuring the public that the establishment of the NIN will not cut them off from the Internet. The NIN, according to the government, will provide a “faster, safer, and more reliable” network for domestic purposes, in addition to the global Internet for daily usage.

What the officials have been less vocal about is that the NIN will make it easier for them to monitor user activities and carry out surveillance. Moreover, the establishment of the NIN as an independent network from the Internet will provide officials with the option of cutting off access without affecting the country’s administration. Shutting down the Internet in the aftermath of the contested 2009 elections, for example, was problematic since it interrupted banking and government operations. With the establishment of the NIN, a similar outage will not interrupt internal network traffic.

Conceptually, the Iranian government’s tactic is somewhat similar to China’s approach to Internet censorship. In China, many popular Internet platforms and services, such as Google, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, are blocked. But Chinese versions of these services, such as the Baidu search engine, the video sharing site YOUKU, and the micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo, are available and widely used. The local nature of these products makes it easier for Chinese authorities to censor content and monitor user activities.

Establishing a new countrywide network and providing national online services will prove to be a time consuming process. Officials are already facing problems in developing and promoting a secure email service to be widely used by Iranians, especially after a number of IT experts and scholars warned [Farsi] the government against promoting an “unreliable” email service that “will not only increase risks for users’ personal information being stolen, but will also make it difficult for users to trust national products in general.” Given the scale of the project, it will likely take a long time for Iranian officials to successfully establish the National Information Network as an independent and popular mean of communication.

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