REPORTING FROM TEHRAN AND LOS ANGELES -- The supreme leader of Iran ordered the creation of a new government agency to monitor cyberspace Wednesday, an aggressive step in the country's ongoing crackdown on Internet activities by its people.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a decree calling for a Supreme Council of Cyberspace, an entity that would be headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and include other top Iranian officials, including the intelligence chief and the head of the Revolutionary Guards.
“Planning and constant coordination” of the Internet are needed “to prevent its damages and consequences,” the decree from Khamenei said. The council should have “a constant and comprehensive monitoring over the domestic and international cyberspace,” it added.
Iranian officials have lamented in the past that the Internet could open the nation to a cultural invasion from the West and make it vulnerable to computer viruses, such as the Stuxnet worm that attacked its nuclear facilities. Many believe the malware was created by Israel or the United States to block Iran's nuclear progress.
Any orders that the cyberspace council issues would be treated as law, the order from Khamenei said. Members would serve on the council for three years.
"If such a council really becomes effective and not just on paper, then I should be scared for my blog, my email, my Facebook -- in short my cyber-identity," a 32-year-old Iranian blogger and activist said, speaking anonymously to avoid possible government persecution. "But hopefully we will find some counter-attack."
The announcement of the council's formation comes at a time when Iran is already aggressively cracking down on cyberspace, trying to block opposition websites and creating special teams to investigate "cyber crimes." Internet access was spotty leading up to recent elections. Dissident bloggers have been arrested and jailed.
"They already have extensive and sophisticated controls on the Internet in all aspects," said Daniel Calingaert, vice president of policy at Freedom House, an international group that advocates for free speech and other rights. "The decision to create this council indicates that they think that all that isn't enough."
Internet cafes are now mandated to track the websites their customers visit, and Iranians are supposed to show their photo IDs and give their full names before surfing the Internet, though the rules are not always strongly enforced in big cities. The country has been labeled as an "Internet enemy" by the media freedom group Reporters Without Borders.
Earlier this year, the Iranian national chief of police called Google an “instrument of espionage.” Government officials have been planning to create their own Iranian search engine and a national Internet that would remain “pure.” Activists fear the new system would crimp Iranian access to the global Web.
-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Credit: Government of Iran/ Associated Press