Iran's Supreme Leader sets up body to oversee internet

Image caption, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's decree said the council was needed to protect Iran from "harm"

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has ordered officials to set up a body to oversee the internet.

The Supreme Council of Virtual Space will include the president, the information and culture ministers, and police and Revolutionary Guard chiefs.

The council will be tasked with defining policy and co-ordinating decisions regarding the internet.

It is thought to be the strongest attempt so far by the Iranian authorities to control the internet.

Iran has long censored it, blocking certain websites and filtering keywords, according to free-speech lobby group Reporters Without Borders.

A "cyber army" was even set up by the Revolutionary Guards in 2010 to combat "destructive" networks. Hundreds of internet users have been arrested and some even sentenced to death.

But crackdowns and surveillance have intensified recently, particularly during periods of political unrest, when the authorities have caused internet slowdowns and disconnections, or jammed telephone lines.

Image caption, The so-called Iranian Cyber Army has hacked several websites including Twitter

New rules also require Iranians to show their IDs and give full names when they visit internet cafes, which must also monitor their activity.

On Wednesday, Ayatollah Khamenei issued a decree "establishing a centre of national virtual space to define policy and co-ordinate and make decisions regarding virtual space", state television reported.

The Supreme Council of Virtual Space will protect Iran from "harm" resulting from "the increasing spread of information and communication technologies, particularly that of the global internet network and its important role in personal and social life", the decree said.

Internet usage has boomed in Iran over the last decade, growing from less than 1% of the population to 13% currently, according to the most recent estimates from the UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The Iranian blogosphere remains one of the most active in the world despite the risks, and many know how to circumvent the censors.