Iran is vowing to replace Western internet search engines with its own homegrown version, amid complaints from the country's supreme leader that the net is being used to corrupt Iranian youth.
During the weekend, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad praised the development and expansion of the internet inside his country, amid signs his government is working to increase control over Iranians' access to the world-wide web.
He says Iran must start the process of developing its own indigenous knowledge base, and use this as a way to share resources and information. Then, he adds, Iran can expand the network to neighboring states, becoming a global player and providing information on the global stage.
Iranian TV spoke with information technology experts, who demonstrated the prototype of Iran's own internet search-engine, dubbed "ya haq", or "the truth", in an apparent play on words with the U.S. search engine Yahoo. The new site is expected to be fully operational by 2012.
The director of Iran's government-run technology company, Hadi Malek-Parast, took President Ahmadinejad's thoughts a step further, telling Iran's Mehr news agency that his researchers are working to "develop a local intranet, rather than an internet, to give access only to official or approved websites."
Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei condemned the West for allegedly trying to "manipulate" Iranian youth in a recent speech, portions of which are rebroadcast on Iranian TV every day:
He says that Iran's enemies have set their sights on young people and they are trying to manipulate them and force them to stray from what he calls the "right" path.
Internet experts say Iran is increasingly worried that new, secure forms of Yahoo, Google and other top internet websites are providing young people with a free flow of information the government can no longer control.
Analyst Meir Javedanfar, of the MEEPAS Center in Tel Aviv, believes Iran is trying to re-exert control over its domestic internet, rather than to simply block Google or Yahoo:
"It is about control. I do not think the Iranian regime is going to stop Yahoo and Google from functioning as search engines, because it needs [them] for its own research purposes and for Iranian businesses, which are operated by the government," said Javedanfar. "What the Iranian government is trying to do is to take away their share of the search engine market and to bring the Iranian user to the site that it wants [him] to see."
Iranian-born analyst Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute in Washington says government censorship of the press is something that dates back to the start of the Islamic Republic, but that it has gotten worse recently, especially after last year's controversial presidential election:
"They see the free flow of information to young people in Iran as probably one of the biggest dangers facing the country," said Vatanka. "They look at how the young are technologically savvy, literate, and interested. There is this thirst for information, for debate, and the Khameneis and Ahmadinejads of this world are trying to choke the flow of information."
But Vatanka says the Iranian people are too intellectually sophisticated for the government's tactics to work. "I see a Chinese model of government control over the internet prevailing," he insists, not a thoroughly sealed North Korean model.