Last year, a machine learning expert in Silicon Valley embarked on a long-distance partnership with two neuroscientists in Tehran, Iran. They planned to gather data on how neurons respond to visual cues, hoping to develop a marker for early detection of Parkinson’s disease. “I’d handle the modeling and analysis, and we’d co-author papers,” says the U.S.-based computer scientist, who asked to remain anonymous because he has family in Iran.
Then, on 16 September 2022, Mahsa Jina Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, died after Iran’s morality police detained her for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly. Her death ignited months of protests across Iran. The government’s response included mass detentions and internet blackouts that disrupted domestic and international communications. The neuroscience collaboration sputtered and then “fell apart,” the U.S. scientist says. Many projects met a similar fate, he and others say.
As the anniversary of Amini’s death approaches, Iran’s government is again clamping down on internet access, but this time it appears ready to go a step further, by launching a National Information Network (NIN) intended to keep most Iranians off the World Wide Web. The NIN, which has been under development for 2 decades, “is meant to suppress and control the information space in Iran,” says Fereidoon Bashar, executive director of ASL19, a tech outfit in Canada that helps Iranians connect to the web using circumvention tools and virtual private networks (VPNs). “With the current situation in Iran, and the potential for unrest, we’re all expecting [the NIN] to come fully online any day,” says an Iranian physicist living in Canada who requested anonymity because he’s obligated to return to Iran. [Continue reading…]