Iran's minister for information and communications technology, Mohammad Hassan Nami, announced this week that his country was developing what he described as an "Islamic Google Earth" to be called Basir ('spectator' in Farsi) which will be ready for use "within the next four months".
"Preparations have been made for launching our world's 3D map project and we are currently creating an appropriate data centre which could be capable of processing this volume of information," Mehr news agency quoted Nami as saying on Tuesday.
Nami, a former deputy chairperson of Iran's joint chiefs of staff and the armed forces, was appointed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the new technology minister in February. Nami, who studied political geography in Iran, is also a PhD graduate in "country management" from North Korea's Kim Il-sung University, according to local media.
"We are doing our best to launch the Islamic Google Earth in the next four months as an Islamic republic's national portal, providing service on a global scale," he added.
"On the surface, Google Earth is providing a service to users, but in reality security and intelligence organisations are behind it in order to obtain information from other countries," Nami said.
Iran has often looked at western web services with a great deal of suspicion.
Accusations against Google
Other Iranian officials have echoed Nami in making similar accusations against Google. Iran's police chief, Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam, said last year that it was not a search engine but "a spying tool", according to Fars news agency. Web users in Iran can usually access Google but some features like Gmail or Google Earth have intermittently faced filtering. However, with suspected help from China, Iran blocks access to many search results. Access to more than 5m websites are blocked in Iran.
Speaking to the Guardian, two users in Tehran, using different internet service providers, gave opposing accounts of their access to Google Earth, one saying the virtual globe was accessible while the other one said it was blocked.
The minister, however, gave little information on what he meant by an "Islamic" 3D map. "We are developing this service with the Islamic views we have in Iran and we will put a kind of information on our website that would take people of the world towards reality … Our values in Iran are the values of God and this would be the difference between Basir and the Google Earth, which belongs to the ominous triangle of the US, England and the Zionists [a reference to Israel]."
Experts, however, have serious doubts about the project. An IT consultant who has worked on Iran's national internet project in the past said the announcement was merely an excuse to obtain funds and secure working contracts for the future.
"They have claimed to run their service in four months and said their data centre capacity will reach Google's size in three years," he said. "[A] three-year project, no business model and only relying on government funding, a piece of cake indeed … To have a data centre with such capacity and security level they need power stations, cooler systems, bandwidth … which will require billions of dollars of investment that doesn't fit with Iran's sanctions-hit economy."
Nami's time in office will also expire in June when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad steps down as president and new elections are scheduled to take place. "I believe they are aware of the project's restrictions and their capabilities. They are only looking for the budget and upcoming contracts," the expert said. Another expert said Nami's remarks amounted to no more than an April Fools' Day joke.
Last year Iranian authorities said they had completed the initial phases of a national internet, a countrywide network aimed at substituting services run through the World Wide Web.
Iran's national internet project has prompted fears among web users that authorities might be planning to pull out of the global internet, but some experts believe that they are creating it to secure the regime's own military, banking and other sensitive data from the outside world.
Amin Sabeti, an Iranian media and web researcher based in London, said he signed up for a national email account on the country's newly-launched mail.iran.ir service four months ago, which required some unusual personal information for registration, but has not heard back and is still waiting for his national email to activate. – © Guardian News and Media 2013