This statement was originally published on article19.org on 29 March 2016.
Today, ARTICLE 19 launches part one of the Tightening the Net report series, which explores Iran's National Internet Project, analysing its history and development, its ramifications for freedom of expression, and offering recommendations to the Iranian government, as well as private investors and technology companies that may be investing in digital development in Iran.
Since 2006, the Iranian authorities have been discussing plans for a 'National Internet'. While talk of increased Internet access and connectivity inside Iran was welcomed, the National Internet Project also poses risks of increased censorship and the effective isolation of Iran from the World Wide Web, marking it as a serious threat to freedom of expression and the free flow of information within a country already notorious for censorship.
The 'National Internet' would be hosted inside Iran and have limited access to the content of the World Wide Web. Furthermore, content within the 'National Internet' would be blocked or filtered according to political, cultural, or religious criteria, and its users' activity would be monitored.
David Diaz-Jogeix, Director of Programmes at ARTICLE 19 explained, "there is no doubt that the development of better infrastructure should lead to faster Internet access which on its own could contribute to a more open society. However, from our research, it appears that the motivation for the National Internet Project's extensive domestic Internet infrastructure is far less wholesome. At the moment, the Iranian authorities' primary objective is to restrict access to World Wide Web and harvest private information about Internet users inside Iran."
Plans for the 'National Internet' are progressing. ARTICLE 19 is aware that in 2015 alone the Iranian government spent USD$285million on developing infrastructure, completing technical groundwork, and preparing content for the National Internet Project. Further, Iran has invested resources in moving data and domains, which are currently accessed by Internet users in Iran, across to the domestic Data Centres.
If the National Internet Project were to be completed in its current form, the impact on Iranian Internet users' freedom of expression would be severe.
In part one of Tightening the Net, ARTICLE 19 welcomes investments in Iran's infrastructure which would improve Internet access and promote open, secure and reliable connectivity, recognising that increased connectivity can contribute positively to the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights.However, the National Internet Project could undermine these economic, social and cultural benefits, violating the right to freedom of expression on a national scale. ARTICLE 19 calls on Iran to match its commitment to improving the domestic infrastructure with an explicit and unwavering commitment to rights of Iranian internet users to freedom of expression, the free flow of information, and privacy.
"If the National Internet Project were to be completed in its current form, the impact on Iranian Internet users' freedom of expression would be severe. The National Internet Project will provide the Iranian authorities with the capacity to prevent access to content produced or hosted outside Iran, potentially leading to a digital isolation of Internet users in the country to the extent seen only in the most oppressive of states," concluded Diaz-Jogeix.
On publication of this report, ARTICLE 19 calls on Iran to urgently review the National Internet Project and cease the development of any elements of the project which would block or limit access to the World Wide Web for users inside Iran. ARTICLE 19 also urges individual investors and technology companies who are considering investing in the National Internet Project to think very carefully before committing to support a project that has such dramatic implications for the fundamental rights of Internet users in Iran.