Authoritarian governments have increasingly sought to use internet disruptions and blockades as weapons to crush dissent. Reports of internet shutdowns have recently come from Hong Kong, Iraq and Indian-controlled Kashmir, where access to the internet has been cut off for more than three months now.
Now it’s Iran’s turn. Over the weekend, the government imposed a nationwide internet blackout to suppress news of anti-government protests. The country’s internet access was disrupted during the protests in 2017 and 2018 — but this almost complete shutdown sets a new oppressive benchmark.
On Saturday morning, I spoke to a relative in Tehran who was trying to beat the city’s notorious traffic, looking for the best route to run an errand. She went on Waze, a popular navigation app that crowdsources traffic information.
Within moments, she realized that a number of Tehran residents were using the app to coordinate “car protests” — where Iranians park their cars on the city’s roads to create roadblocks — against the government’s decision to raise gasoline prices by 50 percent. Protests erupted across the country.
Iran has been smarting under an economic crisis since the most recent round of American sanctions banning Tehran’s oil sales: Some estimates suggest that inflation is around 40 percent, unemployment is at 14 percent, the economy is expected to contract by 9 percent and the Iranian currency has lost more than half of its value against the dollar since the Trump administration reimposed sanctions.
In Tehran, Waze users were sending traffic reports calling for protests. My relative followed one to a spot on Sattari Highway, an expressway running from northern to southern Tehran. She shared her photographs and videos from the protest with me and some mutual friends on a social media chat. Hundreds of cars stopped on the highway, and people were protesting. Tires and garbage cans were on fire around her.
After she got back home, she expressed her surprise that the internet was still working and we were able to communicate. Hamrahe Aval, or the Mobile Telecommunication Company of Iran, a mobile phone and internet service provider with more than 50 million subscribers, had stopped working on Saturday morning in Tehran. Her Irancell network was still connected, though working at a slower speed. By the afternoon I lost touch with her.
Tehran is now able to shut down internet access to tens of millions of people within a day. Ninety-three percent to 95 percent of all internet users in Iran were offline within 24 hours of the shutdown, according to one report, the exceptions being the organs of the government and some public universities.
Internet shutdowns are costly for a nation’s economy. NetBlocks and The Internet Society estimate this one could cost Iran about $370 million a day, but Tehran is likely to have diminished financial loss by relying on its National Information Network, a domestic digital infrastructure sometimes referred to as the “national internet” or “halal net.”
Since the 2009 Green Movement, when the Iranian authorities grasped the potential of the internet to aid dissent, the government has been trying to roll out the National Information Network. While justified on national security and economic grounds, in practice it helps to control political expression and to minimize the economic losses from a complete internet shutdown.
In 2010, Iran officially started the development of this national internet project, which would securely host digital platforms inside the country and be potentially disconnected from the global internet. Crucially, the national internet could block or filter content according to Iran’s strict press regulations. The rights of users over their data and its monitoring and storage would naturally be accessible by the authorities.
As elements of the project were rolled out under President Hassan Rouhani, such as national infrastructure for banking and payments, Iranians experienced no direct impact on their access to the global internet.
The national internet project equipped Tehran with the ability to impose an almost complete internet shutdown while allowing the national infrastructure for finance, hospitals, e-commerce and other information networks to continue functioning.
As the almost complete internet shutdown — disconnecting tens of millions of Iranian users from the global internet — Tehran’s national internet project has finally come to fruition. Iranian banking and other transaction platforms, now run on national networks, have been online and functioning except for some technical glitches.
The Iranian government has successfully stopped protesters from sharing content, mobilizing and increasing awareness about state violence. Before the internet shutdown, Iranians relied on trusted sources like the BBC’s Persian-language service or journalists such as Vahid Online, an award-winning citizen journalist who verifies and aggregates content from inside the country — and posts it for other Iranians and the broader world to see through networks such as Telegram, Instagram and Twitter.
On Friday night, Vahid Online posted in his Telegram channel — which has over 170,000 followers — a video of a protester bleeding on the ground, apparently shot by Iranian forces on a street in Sirjan, a city in southeastern Iran, about 600 miles from Tehran.
Images of atrocity intensify anger and resentment against the state. The Iranian government fears acts of state violence being recorded and going viral online; it’s another reason to cut off access to the internet. In 2009, Tehran was rattled by the symbolism and global resonance of the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old philosophy student, by the Iranian security forces. The government sought for a long time to discredit the video.
Controlling the country’s online spaces is seen as necessary for the survival of the regime. The state broadcaster, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, has already created Soroush, a messaging and social media app aimed to replace the wildly popular app Telegram. Soroush has no privacy protections and comes with strict censorship.
Iran’s turn to a national internet and online platforms created and patrolled by the organs of the state, while removing access to the internet is frightening. If continued, it would push the country toward greater authoritarianism and diminish the few freedoms its citizens had.
Source » nytimes