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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Shatter the web: Internet fragmentation in Iran

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Introduction

Last November, the Iranian government implemented rations that sent fuel prices skyrocketing by up to 300 percent. The abrupt price hike stirred immediate unrest across the country. As news of the announcement spread, tens of thousands of protestors poured into the streets. The demands of protesters quickly extended beyond the cost of fuel, as many called for the downfall of the regime. Authorities responded with brutality, attacking protestors with water cannons, batons, and tear gas.

Initially, protestors relied on social media like Telegram and the traffic app Waze to coordinate their demonstrations. But just as protests were gaining steam during the first day, internet availability plummeted. To quell the protests, the Iranian government had throttled internet access to 5-7 percent of normal capacity. For over a week, the flow of information slowed to a trickle. Under the cover of an information blackout, government forces cracked down on protestors – killing over 300 and arresting thousands more in what became the deadliest instance of state violence since the 1979 Revolution.

Iran’s internet shutdown last year was an exercise of its digital power that had been years in the making. Since 2013, the Iranian government has invested heavily in developing its domestic internet known as the National Information Network (NIN). With critical internet infrastructure under its control, the Iranian government can isolate its citizens from the global internet by filtering content, restricting communications, and controlling which platforms they can use.

The idea for a domestic internet dates back to 2005 under then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since then, the fear of domestic unrest (particularly after the 2009 Green Movement) and the impacts of U.S. foreign policy have spurred the NIN’s development. Over time, Iran has built a vast ecosystem of platforms and technologies that serve as alternatives to those offered on the global internet. Today, Iran is surpassed only by China in its control over the web, creating a hostile environment for journalists and activists while enabling the spread of government propaganda.

Iran gives a glimpse into the potential future of digital repression and its harmful effects. Depending on the actions of domestic players and potential changes in U.S. foreign policy under a new administration, Iran’s drift toward “internet fragmentation” can be slowed.

Internet fragmentation: The anatomy of a fractured Internet

Iran’s efforts to insulate its internet from the rest of the world are an example of internet fragmentation. The internet can be understood as a “network of networks,” connecting people around the world. Internet fragmentation occurs when these networks are no longer interoperable due to technical, economic, or political reasons. Internet fragmentation is not a black and white issue, however, and there are gradations between an open web and a splintered web. Some scholars argue that the internet cannot be fragmented due to global reliance on internet protocol (IP) for communication. IP addresses connect all computers and devices, serving as the lingua franca of the internet and making the complete isolation of networks difficult. Additionally, interoperability and the importance of access to internationally hosted platforms such as social media sites and internet infrastructure companies like Google dramatically deter countries from fragmentation. Alternatively, activists point to government censorship and content moderation as examples of creeping internet fragmentation.

Iran provides a particularly poignant example of a shift towards fragmentation, as defined by activists. While many countries have and will continue to shut down the internet during times of unrest,[1] the NIN enables the domestic internet to stay online while cutting off international connections. As internet traffic slowed to a fraction of its normal speed last November, applications running on the national internet, such as the Iranian YouTube equivalent “Aparat,” stayed online. Although there were some reported glitches regarding bank transfers just after the shutdown began, it was clear that the NIN could function independently.

Recent research from the human rights organization Article 19 details the 2019 internet shutdown and the technical and regulatory measures in place that made it possible.[2] The report, which is the most complete account of the internet shutdown to date, explains how Iran has consolidated control of its internet.

Iranian leadership wields immense power over internet administrators, specifically the companies which administer access to the internet, known as internet service providers (ISPs). For a user to connect to the global internet and visit websites hosted in other countries, an international gateway is required. As Article 19 specifies, “At the time of the shutdowns, all Iran’s ISPs were connected to five international gateways, operating through two entities.”[3] Yet rather than conduct a costly and heavy-handed shutdown of the international gateways – which are crucial to conducting business – the regime directed individual internet service providers to shut down. These decisions came directly from the National Security Council (NSC), a subset of the Supreme National Security Council (the decision-making body chaired by Ayatollah Khamanei).

Interestingly, Iran has since decentralized its process for accessing the global internet by leaving it up to the individual ISPs to connect to international gateways. In their report, Article 19 points to U.S. financial sanctions which raise the cost of accessing the global internet, a lack of capacity between the two entities operating the gateways, and a desire to break up monopolies in the telecommunications industry as potential explanations for this policy change. Although there are now more actors involved in the management of internet services, the NSC’s direct control over ISPs last November make it unlikely that this change will improve internet freedom.

The development of the National Information Network only began in 2013, but its roots lie in the Iranian experience with the internet. Often lauded as an emancipatory technology, the internet has threatened the security of the regime. To understand why the NIN came about, it is necessary to look at the history of the internet in Iran.

The Internet in Iran: From “Blogistan” to now

The internet first arrived in Iran in 1992, but it was not until the late 1990’s and early 00’s that Kafinet – internet cafes – popped up around the country and access became widespread. The impact of the internet on Iranian society was tremendous, helping to expand a public sphere that had been tightly controlled for decades. “Weblogistan” (‘The Land of the Blogs’) emerged as the predominant medium for online engagement, with hundreds of thousands of Iranians registering by 2009. The internet’s arrival would reshape information spaces in the country, opening a new medium for exchange which the government has since struggled to control.

The flourishing of online spaces came in tandem with Iran’s liberal heyday under reformist President Mohamed Khatami. In office from 1997 to 2005, Khatami advocated for a “dialogue of civilizations” to ease tensions with the West, a relaxation of harsh censorship laws, and a mild expansion of civil liberties. Despite liberalizing trends, the conservative judiciary instituted some restrictions on the internet, such as a special committee (the “Legal Investigation of Internet-Related Crimes and Offenses”) and explicitly political content was largely prohibited from blogs and other online spaces.

The 2005 election of conservative populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dramatically increased censorship in Iran, including online. Numerous websites were banned, and the government began to regulate bloggers, requiring each one to register with the government. It was around this time that the idea of a National Information Network first arose, but it was not until 2009 that the political power of an open internet would become clear in Iran and accelerate the project.

The 2009 Green Movement, a series of mass protests following the disputed reelection of Ahmadinejad, marked a turning point in the regime’s outlook on the internet. During the protests, the largest since the 1979 revolution, demonstrators used social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to organize and to spread pictures and videos of violence committed against them. Since then, the government has embarked on what Farideh Farhi calls the “securitization of Iran’s domestic political environment.”[4] Internet service providers (ISPs) require approval from the country’s main censorship body, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG), and must institute filtering mechanisms. Since then, Iranians have increasingly turned to virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxy servers to circumvent censorship.

The Green Movement was followed shortly by the 2010 Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear facility in Natanz. The resulting destruction of hundreds of nuclear centrifuges spurred the development of Iran’s own offensive cyber capabilities. The sudden domestic and international threats posed by new technologies prompted the development of the National Information Network.

The construction of the NIN formally began in 2013 with the development of domestic infrastructure for banking and financial transactions. In addition to infrastructure changes, the government has also sponsored numerous domestic alternatives to international platforms. “Souroush,” a messenger app, has been advertised as an alternative to Telegram and “Parsijooh” as an alternative search engine. The increasing popularity of homegrown platforms in recent years is a result of extensive government subsidies, such as the reduced cost of streaming data on domestic platforms. During protests last November, local alternatives remained online as international platforms froze.

The development of a domestic information ecosystem greatly increases the censorship capabilities of the government, which has far more control over Iranian platforms that international ones. Iran’s approach emulates China, where users are restricted to domestic platforms like “WeChat” in lieu of its international equivalent, WhatsApp. A robust domestic network of platforms and services enable the long-term restriction of access to the global internet in Iran.

Since 2013, the government has put forth various justifications for the project. One such justification, often directed at domestic audiences, is the need for a “moral” internet. Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, Iran’s prosecutor general, has referred to the internet as a “slaughterhouse” and bastion of “blasphemy, anti-national security teachings, and destruction of the identity of the youth.”[5] The Islamic narrative that has formed the basis of Iranian national identity since 1979 is intensely preserved through censorship and state propaganda, and the government argues the NIN is necessary to maintain this identity.

Citing national security, Iranian officials argue that constructing a National Information Network could act as a defense against cyberattacks originating abroad. Functioning similarly to an “air-gapped” network, the NIN could slow or prevent hostile acts, such as distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, from impacting Iranian networks. Officials have also expressed concern over the United States using its disproportionate influence over the web to “cut off” Iran from the global internet. Though it is unclear how the U.S. could technically accomplish such an act, it is powerful rhetoric for pro-NIN messaging.

Additionally, the American sanctions regime has helped the Iranian government justify the NIN project and likely accelerated it. Sanctions enacted in 2010 prevented U.S. companies from hosting “.ir” domains. Because U.S. companies, such as Google and Amazon, make up a disproportionate amount of critical internet infrastructure, Iranian organizations are forced to host their websites domestically. Beyond just .ir domains, many of the critical VPN services needed by Iranians to skirt government censorship are hosted on American platforms and are inaccessible to activists and journalists.

U.S. sanctions, particularly President Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy, have been a boon to domestic proponents of the NIN. In addition to forcing Iranian organizations to host their websites within Iranian borders, sanctions fuel nationalist rhetoric in support of the NIN. It helps the Iranian government to sell the project not as a tool of oppression, but rather as part of anti-imperialist struggle.

Conclusions

Adding to the case against sanctions

Since 2016, the Trump administration has aggressively sanctioned Iran with little to show for its efforts. The strategy of “maximum pressure” has failed to prevent stockpiling uranium, missile development, and support for militant groups in the region. The policy of sanctions, coupled with leaving the JCPOA, has often consisted of a “stick with no carrot” by punishing the Iranian government without providing any incentive to change.

American sanctions have encouraged internet fragmentation by making it more difficult for Iranians to use critical internet infrastructure and by fueling nationalist rhetoric. Failed policies have resulted in an Iran with a more entrenched, hostile government that is now far more adept at censoring its public online. Changing policy to allow for companies like Amazon to host .ir domains would further integrate Iran’s economy with the global internet, making future internet shutdowns more costly.

An Orwellian Future in Iran?

The development of Iran’s National Information Network and the potential for a completely isolated NIN invite comparisons to the dystopia of George Orwell’s 1984. Total government control over the internet is a terrifying possibility, but it is not the reality facing Iranians just yet. There are still technical and economic barriers to such a high degree of fragmentation. The domestic alternatives necessary for an independent NIN are difficult to create due to economies of scale and the appeal of international competition. Moreover, Iran will always require some international connections for economic purposes.

While a complete insulation of Iran’s internet remains out of reach, the NIN will continue to fulfill its narrower purpose of quelling protests and surveilling dissidents. Iran can quickly and efficiently halt the flow of information needed by domestic organizers and international observers. The government showed its willingness to use these tools again in mid-July of 2020, shutting down the internet amidst regional protests.

The development of the National Information Network is alarming. It threatens human rights and may serve as a template for other authoritarian regimes seeking to crush dissent. Its development has been aided by misguided U.S. policy that both fueled nationalistic support for the project and created the technical conditions that justified constructing a domestic internet. The Biden administration will hopefully take a less aggressive stance towards Iran. By allowing US tech companies to host .ir domains, and reducing the crippling sanctions currently in place, the U.S.  can disincentivize Iran’s transition to a National Information Network. Still, changes in U.S. foreign policy will not undo the NIN and it will remain a powerful, sophisticated tool of oppression for the foreseeable future.

 

Ryan Grace is a Graduate Fellow with the Cyber Program at MEI. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where he concentrates in Middle East Studies. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Photo Dünzlullstein bild via Getty Images

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