In the early spring of 2011, Iranian authorities made a series of bombastic public statements about government plans to strengthen their control over information. What emerged is the enduring specter of a “halal Internet”?—?a network cleansed of immorality and disconnected from the global Internet.
Over the next several months, the political and religious establishment began to aggressively challenge the morality and security of the Internet, calling instead for a network that promoted the strict religious values promoted by the Islamic Republic. The then-Deputy Vice President for Economic Affairs described the vision for a national Internet as “a genuinely halal network, aimed at Muslims on an ethical and moral level.”
The atmosphere in Iran was tense that year. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had recently won a contested reelection plagued by accusations of fraud and months of protests. International audiences easily interpreted the talk of a national internet as a move to silence dissent. By September 2012, authorities were frequently threatening to block Googleand demanding the public use domestic email services or else lose access to their e-banking services. As one hardline member of Majlis, the Iranian parliament, recently framed the issue, “at this moment the Iranian people are captive and entertained by a cyberspace that is in the hands of the United States.”
Many feared that Iran would disconnect from the internet entirely. But on the ground the situation has been more complicated. In 2013 Hassan Rouhani succeeded Ahmadinejad, and a few weeks ago, his more moderate administration declared the completion of the first phase of the program. So in the half-decade since the “halal internet” idea took root, what is Iran’s national Internet, and what exactly launched last month?