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Intelligent' control?

Farnaz Seifi
January 9, 2013

An Iranian official has announced Tehran is creating special software to control Internet access to social media. But experts doubt this will give the government complete control of cyberspace.

Facebook and twitter on the computer and smart phone (Photo: Uwe Zucchi dpa (c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Iran is designing "intelligent software" that would give citizens restricted and controlled access to filtered social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, media in Iran said, quoting the chief of police, Esmaeil Ahmadi Moghadam.

Moghadam claimed that smart control of the user's activities in social networks would help eliminate the "disadvantages" of these websites, while at the same time allowing people to benefit from their "useful" content.

Access to and use of Western social media websites is already restricted and filtered in Iran. The new "intelligent software" is just one of many measures aimed at gaining more control over user content in the country's decade-long attempt to create its own brand of Net space, often referred to as "Halal Internet."

A keybord with an Iran symbol on it
Tehran has tight control over Internet content - but it could be tighterImage: Fotolia/kebox

Ahmadi Moghadam's comments came after the launch of a Facebook page dedicated to the country's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei which attracted a great deal of attention in Iran and abroad.

Infrastructure capacity

Iran has developed its sophisticated filtering and tracing system over the years in collaboration with China, the pioneer of Internet censorship. But there are many flaws in the system, which is not as tight as China's, as explained by Nima Rashedan, an Iranian tech expert based in Switzerland.

"I don't think the chief of police knows exactly what he is talking about. He announced the idea as a new plan without knowing the exact technical difficulties of the project."

Rashedan did not believe Iran had the adequate infrastructure and knowledge to make such software. "Iran has not even been able to successfully copy the Chinese model."

Instead of granting its citizens access to social media platforms created by Western companies, Beijing created its own versions of such sites, such as Weibo, the Chinese answer to Twitter, and Youku, which is like Youtube. The policy proved to be a success - these sites are immensely popular in China.

Iran also attempted to create its own version of Facebook and Youtube, but the majority of Net users preferred to stick with the Western platforms which had already become popular. To persuade them to change their minds, the government in recent months has offered access to high-speed Internet only to those who wish to access Iranian social network sites.

A man's silhouette is seen in front of a computer (Photo: Julian Stratenschulte dpa +++(c) dpa - Report+++)
Iran's Internet users face increased restrictionImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Enormous task

The government of Iran has total control over the Internet and monitors all data traffic in the country, where, out of 75 million people, the government estimates, 25 million use the Net.

And the number of users is increasing by the day - something that makes tracking them that much more difficult. "Deep packet inspection, a form of computer network packet filtering that examines the data, becomes much harder when the number of users and the amount of data transferred increase every day," Rashedan explained.

One method the government has tried was the deployment of SSL accelerator devices, which help decode Internet data more accurately. But such efforts have not been enough.

Rashedan said authorities have had to resort to simple measures such as blocking Flash files and MP3s on Facebook to keep their grip on the situation. The users, however, don't seem to mind, as "most of them share photos and texts instead of videos."

"The authorities can limit the bandwidth, ban data transferring, and completely block some of the internet ports such as virtual private networks (VPNs) or cut data code connections. That's how they temporarily cut access to Gmail." Rashedan explains.

Pressure over internet policy

Rashedan said those who make the final decisions about Internet censorship were under pressure from different organizations inside the country to increase the speed of the Internet.

Nima Rashedan (Photo: Nima Rashedan)
Nima Rashedan does not believe the software will help Tehran realize 'Halal Internet'Image: privat

"The majority of providers in Iran has direct links to military institutions such as the Revolutionary Guard. Billions of dollars are tied up in Internet projects, so the military institutions place emphasis on expanding internet traffic."

But top officials such as the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei are fearful about the extent to which the Internet can be used, and others disagree over whether "they should increase the speed and bandwidth, or reduce censorship."

There is competition between Middle Eastern countries to develop Iran's Internet infrastructure. Turkey and Arab countries in the Persian Gulf are currently the top players providing start-up and other technology.

So according to Rashedan, only one country in the region will lose out from the current policy of increased censorship and restriction, and that will be Iran itself.

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