On Monday, April 9, a story about Iran disconnecting its citizens from the global Internet began to quickly circulate through blogs and news outlets. The story spread quickly throughout the day, helped along by Twitter. (We were not immune ourselves!) Just a day later, however, Agence-France Presse (AFP) reported that Iran’s Ministry of Communication and Internet Technology denied the story, calling it nothing more than a hoax perpetuated by “the propaganda wing of the West.”
If this was a hoax, why was it so effective? There were two reasons. First, numerous respected news organizations (particularly AFP) perpetuated the story, and their endorsements gave the story veneer of truth. Second, the story fit within an expected narrative about Iran.
News Agencies Tricked?
If this was a hoax, part of what made it so effective was that so many respected outlets carried the story. For many outlets the primary source for the story was an April 9 International Business Times (IBT) article, “Iran To Shut Down Internet Permanently; ‘Clean’ National Intranet In Pipeline.” The centerpiece of that article refers to a statement allegedly released April 5:
In a statement released Thursday, Reza Taghipour, the Iranian minister for Information and Communications Technology, announced the setting up of a national Intranet and the effective blockage of services like Google, Gmail, Google Plus, Yahoo and Hotmail, in line with Iran’s plan for a “clean Internet.”
Identifying the original source of IBT’s story has proven difficult. In their April 10 follow-up (and retraction), the IBT referenced as sources an AFP story and an otherwise uncited interview with Taghipour in which he supposedly stated that “all Internet Service Providers should only present National Internet by August.”
Regardless of whether it was AFP or IBT, on April 9 many were convinced by these stories that Iran would be replacing Internet access with a closed, “halal” intranet. It was believed that this service would block access to Western social, search, and email networks and provide citizens with approved Iranian replacement sites instead.
On April 10, however, the waters were muddied. Iran’s Ministry of Communication and Internet Technology issued a response denying the story, which AFP carried:
The reports derived from a supposed interview with Communications Minister Reza Taghipour published on April 1 that was in fact a hoax, the ministry said in the statement on its own site www.ict.gov.ir — which itself was not accessible outside of Iran.
Because we have not been able to locate a transcript of the alleged interview with Taghipour, it is impossible to resolve why Iran dates the interview to April 1 and IBT dates it to April 5. Regardless, Iran’s denial was convincing, and IBT, OpenNet Initiative, and others promptly appended retractions to their initial reports.
Predisposed to Believe It Was True
The second reason why the story gained traction is that it fit nicely into an existing narrative about Iran. For about a year, it has been widely believed that Iran was constructing a halal intranet. Last April, Iran’s head of economic affairs boasted about the project in IRNA, a state-run news agency (as noted by Internet scholar Cyrus Farivar). When Iran started blocking encrypted connections in February, it was suspected that this could be related to Iran’s work on its national intranet. Around the same time, Iran ordered Internet cafés to impose draconian new surveillance mechanisms, and mandated that individuals provide authentic information, including national ID numbers, addresses, and full names, in order to obtain access to the nationalized, internal email network.
As of last week it seemed to be a given that Iran was intent on creating a national network. What was unknown was whether this would be in addition to the global Internet or a replacement to it. Thus, the story that Iran was going to restrict connections to the outside world was not just believable, but it tapped into our most pessimistic fears about the situation.
A recent Request for Information, apparently published by Iran, seems to confirm that Iran is indeed intent on building its national intranet. We still do not know if Iran intends to use this network to supplant the greater Internet, but Ars Technica suggests that a disconnect is unlikely given the amount of money that Iran has invested in Internet surveillance technologies. Indeed, surveillance is often more useful to governments (and more dangerous to its citizens) than an outright block. Perhaps the most likely outcome is that Iran will use a combination of incentives for those who use the intranet (cheaper prices, for instance) and punishment for those who don’t (reduced bandwidth, heavy-handed filtering, and strong surveillance) to encourage citizens to voluntarily opt into the halal intranet. In that manner, Tehran could likely achieve most of its objectives without actually implementing a full Internet disconnect.