Iran's leader sets up Internet control group

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By ALI AKBAR DAREINI, Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's supreme leader ordered Wednesday the creation of an Internet oversight agency that includes top military, security and political figures in the country's boldest attempt yet to control the web.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Supreme Council of Cyberspace will be tasked with preventing harm to Iranians who go online, state TV reported.

The report did not spell out specifically the kind of dangers that the council would tackle. But officials have in the past described two separate threats: computer viruses created by Iran's rivals aimed at sabotaging its industry, particularly its controversial nuclear program, and a "culture invasion" aimed at undermining the Islamic Republic.

Khamenei's statement follows ambitious plans announced by officials to create homegrown alternatives for Internet staples like Google, which would in effect make it unnecessary for many Iranian web users to visit any site based outside the country's borders.

The cyberspace council will be headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and includes powerful figures in the security establishment such as the intelligence chief, the commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guards, and the country's top police chief.

It also includes the speaker of parliament, state media chiefs, government ministers in charge of technology-oriented portfolios, and several cyber experts.

"Given the need to make constant plans to protect (Iranian users) from harm resulting from (the Internet) requires a concentrated center for policy-making, decision-making and coordination in the country's cyberspace," Khamenei said in his decree.

Khamenei's order for creation of the council follows a series of high-profile crackdowns on cyberspace including efforts to block opposition sites and setting up special teams for what Iran calls its "soft war" counter-measures against the West and allies.

Iran has blamed Israel and the U.S. for Stuxnet, the powerful virus that targeted Iran's nuclear facilities and other industrial sites in 2010. Tehran acknowledged the malicious software affected a limited number of centrifuges — a key component in nuclear fuel production. But Iran has said its scientists discovered and neutralized the malware before it could cause serious damage.

Tehran's perception of threats extends beyond viruses, however.

Iran claimed in July that it has found a way to block the so-called "Internet in a suitcase," a program reportedly developed by the U.S. to bring online access to dissidents living in Iran. At the time, Minister of Information Technology and Telecommunications Reza Taqipour said Iran has taken technical measures to combat the the program.

Iran says the program is part of a "cultural invasion" by Iran's enemies aimed at promoting dissent and undermining Iran's ruling system.

Some Iranian officials have discussed creating Iranian versions of popular global Internet applications that they say are a threat to national security.

In controversial remarks in January, Iran's police chief, Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam, called Google an "instrument of espionage" rather than a search engine.

In its place, Iranian officials have announced that they hope to deploy an indigenous national search engine called "Yahaq," or "Oh Lord" in 2012.

Taqipour said last month that Iran is planning to launch the first phase of a national Internet by June. It was not fully clear what this plan would entail.

Iranian users currently have access to most of the Internet, but the country blocks some sites that are affiliated with the opposition, that are seen as promoting dissent, or that it considers moral corrupt.

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