Plagued By Attacks, Iran Develops Its Own Internet

Audie Cornish talks to Washington Post reporter James Ball about Iran's preparations to create an internal Internet.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Cyber-security experts are keeping a close eye on Iran, as the country develops its own Internet. Some details of that network are becoming clear. As The Washington Post reports today, American security researchers have identified functional parts of Iran's Internet and some information about how it's being used.

James Ball co-wrote that story for The Washington Post and he joins us now. Welcome, James.

JAMES BALL: Hi, there.

CORNISH: Now, you write that this would take a tremendous amount of infrastructure work on the part of the Iranian government. So what is the state of Internet access in Iran today - not just the speed in infrastructure but also just access to information?

BALL: Quite a lot of Iranians actually have Internet access. It's not great. We'd complained about it here. But they've got dial-up. A couple of them have broadband. And it's pretty slow and it is censored. But a lot of Iranians have ways around it, either using software that the State Department helps fund or even just stuff other Iranians of neighboring countries get for them. So generally if people want to, they can find their way around it.

CORNISH: So how would this state-run Internet work? I don't understand, it's a parallel Internet? Or are they essentially walling off, you know, the country's little corner of the existing Internet?

BALL: A parallel Internet is quite a good way to think of it. It's a bit like in your office, where you might have your own little Internet system that you can only access in there. They've built a sort of version of this that seems to stretch across the whole country. And at the minute, there's copies of government websites, academic websites on there. And so, it's a little bit like a sort of shadow Internet that's completely under the control of the Iranian government.

CORNISH: Talk a little bit about what the reasoning is that Iran's officials have given for wanting to set this up.

BALL: I think Iran has essentially talked about purifying the Internet almost; trying to have something that's consistent with some of the religious ideals that the government imposes and encourages. So you're talking about something that's sort of free of pornography, certainly, gambling, but also lots of other influences.

CORNISH: But as a country that's also been the subject of cyber attacks, is this essentially defensive?

BALL: It's possible to say it's defensive but there would be much easier ways for Iran just to look at defending its critical infrastructure and so on. And if you talk to the cyber security experts here, they don't think this is about preventing another Stuxnet or Flame. There'd be much easier ways to do that.

CORNISH: Well, what are the implications for this globally? I mean, what are cyber security experts concerned about beyond Iran?

BALL: The issue comes if more countries try to copy this kind of architecture. If lots of places do it, then we might start to see the actual Internet fragment. And we know how central it was to the Arab Spring and if lots of places copy what Iran's doing, we essentially kind of start to lose the overall system.

CORNISH: And how close are they to getting this up and running? I mean, realistically, what's the evidence out there?

BALL: Well, it works at the moment. There's not many sites on it, but if you're an Iranian Internet user and typed in these new addresses, they're working now today on the ground. So it's there. It works. It's functional. It's now more a question of can they scale it up? Can they keep it going? And can they really separate it off from the Internet proper?

CORNISH: James, thank you for speaking with us.

BALL: Thanks very much.

CORNISH: James Ball, contributor to the Washington Post. We spoke to him about his reporting on plans by Iran to establish a state-run version of the Internet.

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