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Opinion | The Ayatollah Comes for the Internet

Since the 2009 Green Movement, when the Iranian authorities grasped the potential of the internet to aid dissent, the government has been trying to roll out the National Information Network. While justified on national security and economic grounds, in practice it helps to control political expression and to minimize the economic losses from a complete internet shutdown.

In 2010, Iran officially started the development of this national internet project, which would securely host digital platforms inside the country and be potentially disconnected from the global internet. Crucially, the national internet could block or filter content according to Iran’s strict press regulations. The rights of users over their data and its monitoring and storage would naturally be accessible by the authorities.

As elements of the project were rolled out under President Hassan Rouhani, such as national infrastructure for banking and payments, Iranians experienced no direct impact on their access to the global internet.

The national internet project equipped Tehran with the ability to impose an almost complete internet shutdown while allowing the national infrastructure for finance, hospitals, e-commerce and other information networks to continue functioning.

As the almost complete internet shutdown — disconnecting tens of millions of Iranian users from the global internet — Tehran’s national internet project has finally come to fruition. Iranian banking and other transaction platforms, now run on national networks, have been online and functioning except for some technical glitches.

The Iranian government has successfully stopped protesters from sharing content, mobilizing and increasing awareness about state violence. Before the internet shutdown, Iranians relied on trusted sources like the BBC’s Persian-language service or journalists such as Vahid Online, an award-winning citizen journalist who verifies and aggregates content from inside the country — and posts it for other Iranians and the broader world to see through networks such as Telegram, Instagram and Twitter.

On Friday night, Vahid Online posted in his Telegram channel — which has over 170,000 followers — a video of a protester bleeding on the ground, apparently shot by Iranian forces on a street in Sirjan, a city in southeastern Iran, about 600 miles from Tehran.

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