The first phase of Iran's national Internet project has already been launched in the country's government departments. Activists fear it's a step toward cutting the population off from the World Wide Web.
In the past few days, several Iranian officials have mentioned the imminent launch of "our own Internet," or what has previously been described as the "Halal Internet," using the Islamic term meaning "permitted."
Reza Taghipour, Iran's information and communications minister, announced last week that the first phase of this nationwide project, which covers governmental institutions in 29 provinces, was set to launch on September 21. Taghipour said all Iranian universities would become part of this network by early 2013, putting Iran a step closer to disconnecting itself entirely from the global Internet.
As the news spread, government officials also announced that Iran was blocking access to Google and Gmail in reaction to the US-made anti-Islam film that has triggered protests across the Muslim world in recent weeks.
Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, an Iranian official from the online censorship department, claimed the decision had been made because of request from the censorship committee.
"We received the written announcement from the Internet censorship committee this morning," Mohammad, a software engineer living in Tehran, told DW earlier this week. "The committee described it as an act against YouTube, but YouTube was already filtered out several months ago."
Fears of being shut out
Human rights organizations and Internet activists believe the move marks the beginning of the end for digital freedom in Iran. But Iranian officials deny this, insisting the project will work side by side with the global Internet to "improve its speed and quality."
"Pulling out of the global Internet is like a self-imposed sanction. It's not logical," said Mohammad Soleimani, the former communications minister, in an interview with the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA) last week.
"There is no clear, detailed information about Iran's national Internet project," Amin Sabeti, a London-based Iranian blog researcher, told DW. "But I do not think Iran has the necessary infrastructure to completely cut Iranian Internet users' access to the Internet." But, he adds that Iranian censorship authorities can sometimes do the unexpected, such as the decision to block Google and Gmail.
Many of the official statements coming out of Iran have been worrying. Two months ago, the Communications Ministry claimed that "in 95 percent of cases you don't need a connection to the international network to use the Internet." Meanwhile, many Iranian officials have said a "Halal Internet" is the best way to protect "religious and national values."
Nearly 5 million websites, including social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, are already blocked in Iran, and the country is ranked fourth in a list of the world's most censored countries compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists - after Eritrea, North Korea and Syria.
'Cyber security' excuse
Behind the Internet project is likely Iran's fear of another Stuxnet-type cyber attack like the one carried out on its nuclear facilities in 2010; the country wants to protect its sensitive data from being accessible online. Officials have previously said that creating a national Internet would provide safer alternatives to the "foreign networks" over which they have no control.
But human rights organizations believe this is simply an excuse for Iran's regime to oppress its citizens.
"The main problem is the attitude of the Islamic Republic to technology," Reza Moini, head of the Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan desk at Reporters Without Borders, told DW. "Unfortunately, they use the experiences of all the governments with a bad human rights record – from China to Burma - for one purpose: to oppress their citizens."
Many compare Iran's Internet censorship plans to the "Great Firewall" in China, where the government is the current master of Internet control. China has launched its own versions of many popular social networking sites like Twitter precisely so it can monitor the activities of users.
But Moini believes Iran's Internet plans are more similar to those of the Burmese government. There, the Internet infrastructure is controlled through occasional total shutdowns and temporary reductions in bandwidth, and access to all social networks and email services like Yahoo and Gmail is sporadically blocked.
"We believe the ideal future for the Iranian government would be to keep the global Internet for their economic and banking systems, and cut the access of ordinary users," said Moini.
Bypassing the wall?
Iran's Internet restrictions are slowly being phased in at government departments in 29 of Iran's 30 provinces. Negar, a young employee at a government ministry, describes the new network as "way faster" and "way more restricted" than the global Internet.
Negar used to surf the Internet during working hours. "Now I think I will spend more hours online when I am at home," she told DW. "This intranet is much faster that the normal Internet, but I can't even open my emails and everything is restricted to legal websites."
Many of Iran's Internet users already use anti-filtering proxies and virtual private networks (VPN) to gain access to blocked websites. Now, they're forced to use these tools to check their emails as well, a "dangerous risk" according to Said Ali, a media strategist living in Iran.
"There are reports that some of the websites that sell VPN to Internet users are linked to the censorship committee, and are actually a trap for the authorities to trace the users," he said.
Internet activists have battled with Iran's sophisticated censorship for a long time. Moini says Reporters Without Borders will continue its fight and consult with the international community to find new ways to provide Iranians with Internet access.
But blog researcher Sabeti warns there is no way around Iran's Internet wall. "The source of Internet traffic is in the hands of Iran's government," he said. "It's like having control of a main water line. If you close the tap, others can do nothing."