REPORTING FROM TEHRAN AND BEIRUT -- Many owners of Iranian Internet cafes are casting a wary eye on their calendars this month. By Jan. 18, they will be required to have implemented a list of new restrictions recently put out by authorities.
Bahman, an Internet cafe owner in central Tehran (who asked that his full name be withheld), worries about the looming date.
Among other restrictions, the new rules require computer users to show photo ID when visiting cyber cafes, provide their full name and the name of their father, as well as show their national Iranian identification number. Internet cafe owners, meanwhile, will be required to install close-circuit cameras in their facilities and maintain records of browsing history and websites visited by users.
"Cafe Nets have a 15-day deadline to implement the circular for the transparency of all activities of the clients," read an excerpt from a statement posted on the website of the Iranian cyber police, a special unit launched last year to confront cyber crimes. Rights groups say it was set up to strengthen government control of the Internet.
For now, it's still business as usual at Bahman's Internet cafe. However, when the new regulations come into force, he said, he worries that his business will be destroyed. And, he said, he'd rather shut down than be pressured into reporting on users and their online activities.
“How can I betray my own clients and interests and keep a record of their Internet surfing, and make them susceptible to further legal persecution?” he asked.
Iranian newspapers have recently printed a circular on the new rules, which many Internet cafes in Tehran have posted on their walls. But of four cyber cafe owners asked, none said they were enforcing the new rules.
The new cyber restrictions underline a pattern of official behavior that makes activists and observers believe that a Web crackdown is underway.
Earlier this month, detained Iranian blogger Vahid Asghari was sentenced to death after he was convicted on charges of setting up a “pornographic” network against Islam and the state, according to a news release by rights watchdog Amnesty International. Meanwhile, Web users are complaining about spottier Internet connections and more blocked sites.
“It is painful to search and read almost anything on the Internet, let alone downloading from the Internet itself,” said Mehdi, a book illustrator. “Downloading a film is almost impossible."
After the Iranian national currency recently lost about 20% of its value against the U.S. dollar, one of the main websites on foreign currencies rates suddenly became inaccessible, said one Web user inside Tehran. In late December, authorities blocked access to the website of Iran's former President Hashemi Rafsanjani after a government order, according to media reports.
Iran has a history of blocking the Internet and arresting online activists. Reporters Without Borders included it on its list of "Internet enemies" and, after the protests of the contested 2009 presidential election, authorities named social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as co-conspirators during the trials of activists. During the demonstrations, protesters had used the Web and social media sites to mobilize and document crackdowns in the streets.
The increased cyber restrictions are being put into place less than two months before the country's crucial parliamentary elections, leading to speculation that the regulations are tied to the March voting. Authorities could be concerned that the Internet might be flooded by messages and charges from political opponents that challenge Tehran's official narrative of events, critics say.
"We should not be surprised about further restrictions and more crackdown," said one political analyst in Tehran who asked to remain anonymous. "It is indirectly related to the upcoming election. Free access to information can be scary for the system, especially when reformists ... try to exchange information about the election ... or subjects such as rigging, scandals and fraud."
Iran also is reportedly planning to launch a national intranet.
Communications and Information Technology Minister Reza Taghipour said recently that the first stage will be launched sometime after March 20, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
Officials have said the new intranet will be "halal," or pure.
It is unclear whether the planned intranet will simply provide a sanitized, optional version of the World Wide Web, or whether it will replace the Internet altogether.
Activists worry that it will be a North Korea-style intranet that filters content and keeps track of Internet users' browsing history and blocks popular search engines, among other things -- and their anxiety could be justified. Last week, a top Iranian law enforcement official denounced Google as an "espionage tool."
"The government wants to make everybody traceable in the virtual world," said 24-year old Sasan, a student activist. "Meanwhile, our access to the international Internet will be restricted. The telecommunications ministry will let us have access to what they want us to access, like sanitizing information.
"But for any tactic, there is an anti-tactic," Sasan said. "I hope."
-- Alexandra Sandels reported from Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim from Tehran