Iran cracks down on Internet as parliamentary elections near

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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As Iran nears its March 2 parliamentary elections, Tehran is adding new surveillance measures over its citizens’ Internet freedoms. In a briefing on Friday, the Department of State, said that the move will cut Iranian citizens off from the “global conversation.” The announcement comes as Iranian authorities work to develop a national intranet, which would effectively replace the World Wide Web for Iranians.

Iran “issued regulations giving Internet cafes 15 days to install security cameras [and] start collecting detailed personal information on customers and document users’ online footprints,” the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, calling the crackdown Iran’s “most sweeping move” yet. The rules also require users to furnish personally-identifying information in order to log on to the Internet at the cafes, including the user’s “name, father’s name, address, telephone and national identification numbers.”

The text of the regulation reads that the rules “are aimed at promoting transparency and organization for Internet businesses and offer more protection against online abuse.”

Google, Yahoo and Wikipedia all rank among the top 10 most visited sites by Iranian Internet users, according to statistics from website analytics site Social networks like Facebook and YouTube rank in the top 20 most visited sites for Iranians. Tehran has already enacted measures to block its citizens from accessing those sites.

In 2009, Tehran created a 250,000-strong Cyber Police task force to monitor the Internet. The creation of two Cyber War centers that employ 2,000 Cyber Army staff was announced in October by Gen. Hossein Hamedani, the Revolutionary Guard commander in Tehran.

Business owners are upset that the regulation will hurt business, and student activists against the current regime are afraid that the government is closing in on them and acting to make it more difficult for dissidents to communicate with the outside world, the Wall Street Journal reported.

During Iran’s 2009 elections, the world watched on Twitter as protestors took to the streets of Tehran over what many perceived to be a stolen election. Pictures and video capturing the state’s violent suppression of the protests were uploaded to the social network. One infamous video posted to the Internet during the protests depicts a woman bleeding to death after she had reportedly been shot through the chest by a sniper.

On Friday, during the first Twitter briefing for the State Department’s “21st Century Statecraft Month,” Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that “Iran is more adept at blocking the free flow of information to its citizens than almost any other country in the world,” and criticized the new surveillance measures as “draconian.” Nuland called Iran’s creation of a “national Internet” (“intranet”) an “electronic curtain down around the Iranian people and to block communication with the outside world.”

“When you create these kinds of national intranets, they generally have pre-cleared information, and they cut people off, and these kinds of efforts at surveillance with cameras and collecting of personal information sort of chill the environment,” Nuland said.

“They discourage people from using the internet at all,” she continued. “From that perspective, we consider them violations of the spirit of collaboration and the human rights of Iran’s citizens.”

The crackdown extends further than Internet cafes.

UPI reported on Thursday that Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was “sentenced to six months in jail for propaganda against the state.” Rafsanjani was criticized by the conservative leadership for backing opposition leader and former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi during the 2009 contest.”

Tehran announced on Sunday the alleged arrest of several U.S. spies who “were in touch with their contacts outside the country through the Internet,” according to the Associated Press. Iran did not say how many were arrested, when the arrests took place, or which agency the alleged spies worked for. One alleged spy, Arizona-born Amir Mirza Hekmati , was sentenced to death on Monday.

While it is common for Tehran to announce the capture and detainment of foreign spies, the U.S. has openly admitted to involvement in Iranian affairs.

The State Department spends nearly $70 million dollars a year on the development of liberation technologies “in Iran and around the world,” including “Commotion” — a $2 million “Internet-in-a-suitcase” project in development by the New America Foundation. The State Department also funds the training of democratic freedom activists.

Despite it’s own violent oppressive measures, Tehran has openly voiced support for the protests of Arab Spring, which was aided by the Internet.  An Iranian envoy, in November, called the Arab Spring “fantastic and very important social change.” (Related: The Facebook revolutions: One year on)

Reza Kahlili, a former CIA operative in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, wrote in a recent contribution to conservative website the American Thinker that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, aspires towards a more apocalyptic outcome for the Arab Spring:

“In recent months, many Iranian clerics have issued statements of admiration for Khamenei, calling him the deputy of the last Islamic messiah, Mahdi, the Shiites’ 12th Imam, and even going so far as announcing that disobeying the supreme leader is equivalent to ‘apostasy from God.’ According to Shiite belief, Mahdi will reappear after great world chaos and destruction, and Islam will rule the world.”

“Countries from Tunisia and Egypt to Yemen and Bahrain, he insists, are struggling to overthrow ties to the West and embrace Islamist movements, which in the end will look to Iran for leadership,” said Kahlili.

“The leadership Iran would provide in such a scenario,” said Kahlili, “could bring on Armageddon as it amasses nuclear weapons in its quest for Islamic world domination.”

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