//CGCS Media Wire presents an early media analysis and preliminary summary by Collin Anderson who discusses his research, entitled The Hidden Internet of Iran, on the structure of the Iranian government’s early attempts at a private Internet system.
With the first public Internet services available through dial-up in 1995, Iranians had around six years of unfettered, albeit slow, access before governmental regulations began to impose limitations on the availability of content. Matching a common trend, these initial restrictions sought to block content deemed pornographic and protect the state’s telecommunication monopoly again VOIP services. Within ten years of the introduction of a consumer Internet, early 2006, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology was already threatening the creation of a “national” Internet, a meme that would haunt freedom of expression advocates ever since. While a shifting set of government ministries, religious figures and professional associations have promised the end of Google’s reign and the establishment of a more culturally appropriate network, this rhetoric has amounted to little more than one of the most extensive filtering regimes in the world and a public that is remarkably adept a bypassing it.
Rather than assessing the future of Iran’s Internet solely on the rhetoric of politicians, it is possible to begin monitoring the internal infrastructure of the country’s networks to look for clues. Beginning in September, through a grant from Annenberg’s Iran Media Program, work began to track the evolution of progress of the National Internet Development Agency’s mandated task of implementing local data centers and deployment of home broadband services. Although it is well known that the international Internet gateways are controlled by semi-state controlled organizations, it became clear that shortly that little is known about technical aspects of such a vital medium.
In a paper posted on the scientific publication repository arXiv, collaborators and I begin to release some of the results of this work by describe the previously unknown and abnormal use of what are designated “private” Internet addresses (IP) for country-wide traffic. While these addresses are normally only used in small settings, such as offices, and not allowed to travel outside local networks, telecommunications companies have allowed them to communicate across the country, whether intentionally or unintentionally, creating a hidden network only reachable inside of Iran. In our initial study, we set out to prove that this phenomenon applies to a wide section of Internet service providers, and that content exists in this space that is only accessible internally. During the process, we find the private locations of services that the government has fostered to compete with the likes of Google, as well as the networks of several ministries.
While we show that this has been in development for at least two years, and that it does not directly mean that the country will disconnect from the Internet anytime soon, we do end by raising more questions than we answer. What remains more clear than ever is that Iran’s networks are internally more interesting than it appears from the outside, and that the principles of universal access that we take for granted are increasingly threatened by new means isolate national networks from the global Internet.
//Collin Anderson is an independent researcher who studies networked communications, internet structure, censorship circumvention and social revolution. You can read other works and academic papers at the library section of his website.
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