News / Middle East

    Iran's Next Step in Building a 'Halal' Internet

    Technicians monitor data flow in the control room of an internet service provider in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 15, 2011.
    Technicians monitor data flow in the control room of an internet service provider in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 15, 2011.

    For years now, Iranian officials have talked about building a “Halal Internet” – essentially a giant Intranet for all of Iran that would seal off Iranian cyberspace from the rest of the world. Whether or not they are actually doing so, or even can, continues to be a matter of debate.

    That said, the government there recently unveiled its next step in their effort to continue where its citizens can go and what they can say online: an Iran-only search engine called “Yooz.”

    Meaning “Cheetah” in Persian, Yooz was officially unveiled in Tehran in mid-February by a host of Iranian officials, including the Mahmoud Vaezi, the Minister for Information and Communications Technology, or ICT.  

    Despite heavy government censorship and monitoring of the web, Iranians – especially youth – are voracious Internet users, and Western-based search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo are very popular.

    Yooz is specifically designed as a counter to those sites. Officials say Yooz will perform vast searches of Iran-based and Persian language websites and catalogue that information for users, supposedly making searches faster and “more secure”, according to Medhi Naghavi who oversees Yooz. Additionally, as quoted in the International Business Times, Naghavi said Yooz will “help Iranians circumvent the U.S.-led economic sanctions” – how is unclear – and “ grant the academic world the access to the Persian cyberspace.”

    What Naghavi didn’t say is that Yooz is just the latest tool for Iranian telecommunications authorities to filter out material and websites the government finds objectionable. Internet traffic into and out of Iran is monitored closely, and officials are constantly blocking new websites as free speech activists figure out new ways around those blocks in a ceaseless game of cat-and-mouse.

    Additionally, during especially sensitive times, such as national elections, authorities slow Internet traffic to a trickle, leaving most users frustrated or simply unable to accomplish even the simplest tasks.

    Increasingly, a number of analysts are raising doubts about Iranian claims of building a completely separate national Intranet, instead characterizing their efforts more like building a “Filternet” – no different from the global web, but heavily censored and filtered.

    A recent report from the British Small Media web analysis firm demonstrates that Iran is investing heavily in its filternet, doubling the budget of the ICT in just a few years. The report also details a growing number of popular websites and apps in Iran – such as Instagram and WhatsApp – that are more aggressively being blocked.

    But this pervasive filtering has had an unintended consequence: large numbers of Iranians who use the web have become adept at using various circumvention technologies such as Tor, VPNs or Psiphon to conceal their activities and work around these blocks.

    And there’s the larger question of whether it’s even possible for a nation, once it’s connected to the Internet, to ever turn back. States like Egypt or Syria that have tried to shut off the web during times of instability found the effects of erasing themselves from the Internet even more damaging than any civil strife. North Korea arguably has next to no connection to the larger World Wide Web, but they never did, making it easier to simply keep the door barred.

    Even China’s “Great Firewall”, undoubtedly the largest and most sophisticated web filtering and censorship operation in the world, is less a wall and more a series of traps and blocks, designed to keep objectionable speech restricted while allowing for the free flow of international commerce.

    While it’s true that Iran’s Internet activities and strategies such as Yooz remain somewhat opaque, one thing is clear as crystal: anyone in Iran wanting to search the full contents of the global Internet should not use Yooz. 

    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

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