These days if you’re following the Farsi media to any extent, you have probably heard of the “Iran National Information Network,” (NIN). In propagandistic speeches of the so-called “innovative” minister of communication or blog posts on state-run Iranian  websites, you can find the footprints of this controversial topic.

After Iran’s anti-government uprisings in last November, the government shut down the internet for five days. During this period, everyone got a better understanding of Iran’s national information network’s technical aspects and its intentions. In the government’s propaganda about NIN, they take South Korea as an example for separating the national network from the world wide web and they compare NIN with South Korea’s intranet. Iran’s government defines the project’s goal as providing faster internet services, lowering costs for users and easing banking and governmental regulations. But what is the reality of this so-called Iran’s “national” information network? Why isn’t this pattern a worldwide standard?

History and Facts of Iran’s National Information Network (NIN)

The first discussions on Iran’s NIN started date back to the presidency of Mahmoud-Ahmadinejad in 2005. At the time, the government described it as a plan to reduce Iran’s dependence on the world wide web. Based on the website of the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (I.C.T), in 2005, the government declared that in three years, NIN would be operational. But despite all the propaganda, this discussion didn’t leave the government’s offices until 2010. In 2010 the NIN project became part of the “Fifth Development program,” and based on the report of government-run news agency’s  ISNA, and considering all the pieces of evidence, this project is still incomplete and non-operative.

The cyber-related research center of Harvard, Berkman Center for Internet & Society declares that Iran’s government has spent more than $6 billion for the National Information Network. “the NIN is the most costly national telecommunications project in the history of the Islamic Republic. Other affiliated costs align well with the NIN’s overarching goals: $1.5 billion on a domestic search engines project” says Simin Kargar from Klein Center.

The NIN project was meant to be finished in three phases by the end of 2015:

  • Phase one: Separating national network from the world wide web
  • Phase two: Relocating all Iranian sites to domestic hosts (planned for completion by 2013)
  • Phase three: setting up local management for the NIN and providing total access and control by the authorities

Despite this staging, this project has egregious flaws. For example, during the five days of complete internet shutdown in Iran last November, none of the two main domestic search engines, Parsijoo.ir, and yooz.ir were dysfunctional and therefore users had to type the full URL in order to access the website. So far the NIN services include: domestic messengers such as iGap, Soroush, BisPhone; domestic email providers like Mihanmail, Chmail(Chapar) and Mailfa; but all of these platforms are suffering from critical malfunctions.

The Islamic republic says that NIN would reduce the costs of the world wide web, secure users’ connections, provide wider and cheaper bandwidth, more secure banking and sustainability of communication in case of emergency internet blockage. But after spending an extraordinary amount of money and the passage of over 14 years since the beginning of this project, still these goals seem far away from reality.

A quick look at Iran’s history of Cyber-suppression

After the series of civil protests in multiple cities inside Iran last November, the government blocked down the internet for five days in a row to stop the demonstrations and freely suppress them. Globally it was an unprecedented act of its kind and there are very limited countries that implement such censorship of the internet. In comparison 2019 Hong Kong’s protests are a good example. After seven months of civil protests in Hong Kong, its autonomous government has not let itself trigger the kill switch and shut down the internet. Iran has a very dark history in this regard so that in any study on the internet and information censorship this country, plays a critical rule. Even though the NIN project is still inoperational, Iran has banned most social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. After the earlier civil demonstrations of 2018, the regime added Telegram – a very famous messaging application with over 40 million users in Iran – to its blacklist. Harassment and imprisonment of social media activists are also a daily routine of the Iranian regime.

What Iran’s hiding about its National Information Network (NIN)

The devil is in the details. Based on the pieces of evidence of the Ministry of Information and Communications, after the third phase and making the NIN operational, users outside Iran don’t have permission to connect to websites and service providers inside Iran’s NIN. This clarifies the ultimate goal of this multi-billion-dollar mechanism. That way, beyond all propaganda of the regime about the benefits of the National Information Network for Iranian users, it turns out that the main objective of this project is censorship and suppression of information exchange in parallel with social and political repression. So comparing Iran’s national internet with South Korea is nothing but a lie and it’s more comparable with China’s notorious firewall or the Censored internet of Russia.

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