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Iran to work with China to create national internet system

A hand on a computer keyboard in the dark. (PxHere/Released)
September 06, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

An Iranian lawmaker says Tehran and Beijing will work together to create a national Internet for Iran as part of a 25-year partnership agreement they are discussing.

China is the world’s worst abuser of Internet freedom, according to Freedom House, while Iran is also known for its harsh Internet censorship, which includes banning tens of thousands of websites and a state-imposed Internet shutdown in November that resulted in tens of millions of Iranians being denied online access.

Closer “cybercooperation” between the two could result in even tighter censorship in the Islamic republic where the Internet is often referred to as the “filternet” due to its many restrictions.

Lawmaker Mohammad Saleh Jokar said earlier this week that work on a national Internet is cited in a section in the draft deal with China that focuses on cybercooperation between the two countries.

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Jokar, head of the parliamentary commission on domestic affairs, did not give details about the proposed cooperation on the centralized national Internet, which would work independently from the World Wide Web.

Iranian authorities have promised for more than a decade to implement the national network and have worked on it since 2002, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Some analysts believe Iran’s development of a sanitized Internet known as Iran’s National Internet Network, or SHOMA, enabled the unprecedented, near-total shutdown of the Internet in November that came amid violent antiestablishment protests sparked by a sudden hike in gasoline prices.

Fereidoon Bashar, the executive director of the Toronto-based technology group ASL19, which helps Iranians bypass Internet filters, told RFE/RL that Iran has already been working with China to tighten online censorship.

“It’s been no secret that Iran has been looking to China and relying on their expertise and equipment for the past decade when it comes to Internet censorship,” Bashar said.

Iranian officials said previously that Tehran was hoping to use China’s experience in the field of information technology.

The former head of Iran’s Information Technology Organization, Nasrollah Jahangard, said in 2014 that Iran welcomes “the activities of the strong Chinese Internet companies to implement and enforce the National Information Network in Iran.”

“Now the Iran/China draft agreement calls for even further collaboration between the two countries with projects ranging from setting up 5G networks to help with the development of Iran’s National Information Network,” he added.

A purported copy of the draft agreement that has been circulated on social media and published by Iranian news sites says the two sides “will expand and strengthen their scientific, technical, legal, and economic cooperation in different areas of cyberspace.”

It also says the two sides will cooperate in the field of technology and telecommunications, including services such as search engines, electronic mail, and social messengers.

“With the recent push in parliament for legislation to implement even further restrictions on Internet freedom, citing China and Russia as examples to follow, the state is getting ever closer to their vision of establishing the China model of information controls and state surveillance,” said Fereidoon Bashar.

Lawmaker Jokar said a draft parliament bill that proposes measures that could lead to harsher online censorship and give control of the Internet gateways to armed forces, “insists” on the implementation of the national Internet.

He also said that the national Internet won’t create restrictions.

“Today, in many countries, there is a national information network, but unfortunately, this has not yet happened in our country,” he said, also suggesting that there wasn’t “a will” on the part of the government.

Officials have thus far not reacted to Jokar’s comments.

Authorities have in past weeks dismissed concerns by lawmakers and others over the controversial pact with China, including claims that Iran will sell discounted oil to China or that Chinese soldiers will be deployed in the country.

It is still unclear when the pact that was proposed in a January 2016 trip to Iran by Chinese President Xi Jinping will be finalized.

A draft agreement was reportedly approved by the Iranian cabinet in June, but details have not been released.