Iran appears to have recently published a Persian-language "Request for Information" (RFI) for an even-more filtered and monitored version of the Internet than what presently exists in the Islamic Republic. The RFI calls for "proper conditions for domestic experts in order to build a healthy Web and organize the current filtering situation," and lists a deadline of April 19, 2012.
The document, which was discovered on Monday by a Washington, DC-based Internet surveillance researcher, was posted to the website of the Research Institute for ICT in Tehran. The institute describes itself in English as the "mother consultant to the Ministry of ICT."
The document appears to be the latest step in what Iranian government officials have previously called the "halal Internet." The government has not yet explained precisely what they mean, nor what its technical capabilities are, nor when it would launch.
"Currently the matter of Internet cleanup is being done via filtering at the Internet gateways of our country, which has had its own set of problems," the RFI states, according to an English translation of the document.
See Iran's "Request for Information"
Ars translates the Iranian "Request for Information" (PDF) to English.
Iran not likely cutting off Internet entirely
Collin Anderson, the researcher who found the document, said this RFI shows an unexpected shortcoming of the Iranian government to capitalize on its own domestic ability and recent deals with Chinese telecom companies such as Huawei and ZTE.
"I believe this clearly demonstrates that the Iranian government does not intend on cutting off access to the external Internet time soon," Anderson told Ars on Tuesday, explaining that the acquisition of a censorship system would not be necessary if Iran was trying to create a highly restricted whitelist or completely cut itself off from the Internet.
"This might suggest that the government has not been able to acquire the services of foreign companies for planning and optimizing an infrastructure," he added.
"This is surprising for those, including me, who believe that much of the censorship software and hardware was being developed internally. The RFI seems to imply the desire to move beyond blacklisting sites and keywords, to a more intelligent system of detecting and blocking ‘immoral’ content, such as pornographic or culturally offensive material."
The document requests bids between April 11 and April 19 to be sent directly to a "Mr. Farzin" at the Research Institute.
"The creation of a comprehensive Internet purifying system that works based on analysis of Web content is considered among the most important activities in this area and efforts must be made to cultivate domestic technologies," the RFI continues. "In addition to creating a domestic industry, among other goals of the institute are the purchase and acquisition of foreign technical knowledge and leveraging of the latest technology alongside domestic ones."
Revolution Guard network
Recently, the Islamic Republic has stepped up its rhetoric concerning the "clean" or "halal" Internet, while also recently launching a separate, closed, communications network for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s premier paramilitary force that deals with internal security.
"We are not in an imaginary state of threats or sanctions," said Revolutionary Guard Deputy Cmdr. Hossein Salami, in late March, according to a Monday article by the Associated Press.
The news agency also reported that the new closed communications system is called "Basir," or Perspective.
"Threats and sanctions are practically being enforced against us. Communications have changed the picture of the world including threats and wars," Salami said.
Defeating the "Electronic Curtain"
Other Iranian experts have suggested that this apparent ramping up of the halal Internet has come as a direct result of American efforts to pierce what President Barack Obama recently called an "electronic curtain" over Iran. Since 2010, the State Department has been heavily involved in funding "Internet freedom" efforts to bring unrestricted access to various parts of the world, including Iran.
"If you read some of the explanations that are given in various websites that are close to intelligence agencies, [and the Revolutionary Guard], the thing that comes up is that they emphasize the fact that the US has become a lot more active in Internet in communicating with various sectors of the Iranian society, and there is a need to respond to that now," Nader Entessar, the chair of the political science department at the University of South Alabama, told Ars on Tuesday.
Others, like Ehsan Norouzi, an Iranian tech journalist based in Germany, note that previous efforts to control the Iranian Internet have "never been successful," citing other pending projects that are unlikely to take off, like a national operating system, e-mail system, and search engine.
"They don't have enough logistics, talents, or experts to implement these ideas," he told Ars on Tuesday.
"It’s not the only plan they’ve had," he added. "These kinds of ideas, after mentioning soft war and cyberwar, particularly in the Supreme Leader's speeches, have grown explosively [in recent years.] There were dozens of plans for cleansing or purifying, and increasing their control on cyberspace significantly. But the government has been successful in reducing the possibility of access in Iran, as few people have broadband access and that bandwidth is often restricted."
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