In spite of all the authorities’ efforts to censor the Internet and punish those who seek to use it for social or political activism, the government has yet to achieve full control over the Internet and its use. Recognizing that Iran’s National Internet and all of its various components are far from complete, and that many Iranians in fact still extensively use Internet services provided by private international technology firms that are not under the control of the Iranian state, the authorities have mounted a parallel effort to build relationships with such firms. The authorities hope to obtain these firms’ compliance with the government’s Internet policies for services used inside Iran.
Iran represents a large potential market for such firms: its population is young and 77 million strong and its Internet penetration is significant and growing steadily. A physical presence inside the country would open up sales of software and services that are currently impossible for these firms. For Iran, the benefit would be the ability to promote terms and a working relationship that would require these firms to comply with their Internet policies in such areas as filtering sites or limitations on content. Moreover, if the company is physically inside the country, the authorities are keenly aware that it would be easier to develop a close working relationship in which they can request information about users or account activities—and these requests would be made to companies that would have a great deal of detailed information about their Iranian users.
Mahmoud Khosravi, the head of the Telecommunication Infrastructure Company, said on December 26, 2013, that the Islamic Guidance Ministry and the Information Technology Organization had started negotiations with major Internet companies, including Google, in order to bring them to Iran and convince them to accept and comply with Iran’s Internet policies. Google has so far declined to give an official public response to Iran’s request. If such an agreement were to be reached, the Iranian government would likely seek to extend this to agreements with other international firms.
In the case of Google, at least, it does not seem that the company is naïve or ignorant of the Iranian authorities’ activities vis-à-vis the Internet. Google has warned Iranian Gmail users about concerted state-backed cyber attacks at least twice this year. Google stated that the warnings were based on reports received from users about attacks on their accounts, which were carried out by state (and not civilian) hackers.