Iran's 'National Internet' Would Block Most Sites

Social media websites like Facebook and Twitter played an important role during last year's uprisings in the Middle East. Now Iranian officials are increasing their control on what its citizens can post, upload and read on the Internet. Robert Siegel talks to Washington Post reporter Thomas Erdbrink for more.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

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SIEGEL: If the Internet is really the information superhighway, then leaders in Iran have plans to put up several roadblocks and speed bumps. Iranian authorities say they will create what they call a national Internet, a domestic network that would block nearly all non-Iranian or non-Muslim websites. They say the point of it would be to prevent the country's Western enemies from spying on Iranians.

For more on this, I'm joined now by Thomas Erdbrink, who wrote about it in The Washington Post. Welcome to the program.

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Welcome, hi.

SIEGEL: You've written, first - that Iranians recently had problems even with Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail and other sites. First, why do people there think all this is happening when it's happening?

ERDBRINK: Well, most people think that that government has basically turned off the Internet because of the large anti-government demonstration that has been announced by the Iranian opposition. This demonstration is due to take place here on Tuesday. And many people suspect that the government has decided to switch off the Internet in order to prevent people from spreading the news to each other; from knowing which routes to walk when they will hit the center tomorrow in those demonstrations called for by the anti-government opposition.

SIEGEL: And this idea of a national Internet, to the extent that you understand it, how much more of a barrier would this be than what's happening now?

ERDBRINK: Well, you were talking about roadblocks and speed bumps. And I think most people here would call it a dead end. You know, it will be more comparable to an office Internet, a closed-off environment in which a couple of IT managers will only decide which sites people can visit and which sites they cannot visit. And someone described it as it's like you take a glass of water out of the ocean and from that point on that glass of water is your ocean. So, that's how the national Internet looks for normal Iranians.

SIEGEL: But as you have reported, while the sorts of problems you've described already taking place might thwart ordinary Iranians, Iranian bloggers and other tech-savvy people have always figured out how to work around these things? Are they still able to do that or are we now talking about much more difficult barriers?

ERDBRINK: Well, it's definitely gotten a lot more difficult. People know how to get access to a virtual private network. Basically, you're calling from your Iranian computer to another computer that could be in Europe or Asia, or even in the United States. And from there, you go to the Internet. Now, recently the government has been very successful in also pinching the speed of those VPNs, virtual private networks. And because the speeds are now so low, they can visit sites but the sites just don't open.

SIEGEL: Thomas, you reported that the Iranians claim that big tech companies online, based in America, are actually helping U.S. intelligence and sharing information about, you know, data mining in Iran and the like. Do you have any idea if there's any truth to that?

ERDBRINK: Well, recently there was actually a big Internet freedom conference in the Netherlands, where both the head of Google and Mrs. Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, together launched a new initiative to support Internet freedom worldwide. So, there might be some truth to the Iranian allegations. But to what extent these companies are actually helping out the American government, I don't know. But the Iranians are definitely convinced that this is happening.

SIEGEL: Well, Thomas Erdbrink, thank you very much for talking with us about it today.

ERDBRINK: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's reporter Thomas Erdbrink of The Washington Post, speaking to us from Tehran.

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