Iran shuts down the Internet: The how and why

Anyone who possesses even mildly the geek’s temperament will remember what happened in Egypt just after midnight on January 28, 2011, The Night Mubarak Turned It All Off. The following graph captures it:

A great darkness poured out of Mordor ....

In a matter of minutes, Web access across a country of 80 million shrank to almost nothing, as every major Internet service provider (ISP) shut down like a po-mo version of the end of Atlas Shrugged. But that steep cliff has to be understood against this graph, too:

Up, up, and away

That’s the growth in Internet usage from its first introduction in Egypt in 1993.   From 2004 on — the same time political dissent was multiplying — it took off almost exponentially. By 2010 it had reached a quarter of the population. This year, Internet penetration is estimated to hit 30%.

The regime was very slow to waken to the potential threat that blogs, social networks, email and other kinds of cybercommunication could pose.  By the time they got around to considering the problem, the Net had burgeoned to a point where they could no longer monitor and conduct surveillance easily. It wasn’t just a question of physical capacity; Egyptian State Security and the regular police were late to develop the technical competence. In the great crackdown on gay men from 2001-2003, police entrapped people in chatrooms and through personals ads.  But they hadn’t the technology or knowhow to trace the guys through their ISPs. The only way of finding them was a relatively primitive one: luring them to give away their names and addresses. One man who was caught on the Web told me,

All of them—the judges, the lawyers, even the niyaba [prosecutor]—knew nothing about the Internet.  The deputy prosecutor even said, “I know nothing about the Internet and I don’t have time to learn about it. What is it? What do you do on it?  Do people just talk around with men?”  They knew nothing about how the things I was charged with actually worked, how these sites work, how you enter them or use them, or even how you log onto the internet or send an e-mail.  They knew nothing except that the police officer had said I was gay and stood in [Midan] Tahrir making feminine motions, and that the Internet was somehow part of this.

The reason they shut down the whole Internet in a failed attempt to stifle the Revolution, then, was that they didn’t know anything else to do. Other, more targeted means of keeping tabs on dissident networks were beyond their ability. As a similar mark of ineptitude, when I say that the Great Blackout in January happened “in a matter of minutes,” I mean it’s inaccurate to think that the Mubarak regime “pulled the plug” on the Internet. They didn’t know where the plug was. They weren’t technically able to shut down the whole thing themselves. Those minutes mean that they were individually calling the telecom companies and ordering them to close up shop.  The whole thing was massive but  appallingly primitive.

Now, what isn’t very well remembered is that the Egyptian blackout boys had a role model. Here it is:

The grand canyon

That deep fosse or fissure is a profile of panic. It was the day after the stolen election of June 12, 2009. As protests spread, on June 13 the state-run service providers shut down. The authorities had realized that the Internet and its accomplice technologies, Twitter and texting and the rest, were how information was metastasizing among the protesters, and spilling over to the outside world. Much like Mubarak’s sweating henchmen, they had no ready means to control it. So off went the lights. They flickered back only slowly in the following days, at a dim and sluggish level. The BBC spoke to a  Western expert who

believes the authorities were buying time to install the filtering tools they needed to have a functioning internet infrastructure, but one over which they had some measure of control. So he reckons they gradually turned the tap back on as they put the filters in.

We talked about two very different countries that have also attempted to control the web; Burma and China. “Burma in 2008 wasn’t very delicate,” he explained, referring to the regime’s reaction to large-scale unrest. “They simply turned it all off, so there was six weeks without a phone call or an e-mail.”

China, by contrast, has a very sophisticated filtering infrastructure, allowing for a completely open interchange of traffic with overseas trading partners, while maintaining strict control over access to forbidden sites and search terms.

And here’s the other graph that’s relevant. Iran’s internet usage as of 2010 was hovering just above 10% of the population:

Crawling toward the light

Iran’s regime struggled after the June 2009 shock to find ways of surveilling and controlling the Internet that would still keep its economy functioning. They were aided, though, by a rate of Web penetration that, while growing along a curve comparable to Egypt’s, had still reached a much smaller proportion of the population. They had a bit of breathing space to sample technology — mostly, in all probability, from China — test it here and there, and develop a comprehensive plan.

The plan appears to be unfolding bit by bit — no pun intended. With legislative elections impending in early March, the government has introduced new rules requiring all Internet cafes to set up security cameras, and trace all users’ online footprints. Customers must also present their personal information before log-on. The Guardian says these

are calculated not to stamp out anonymous use of the internet, but to dissuade the far larger body of average people from any thought of dissent…. In a society where you know that you are being watched, eventually you will watch yourself, and save the authorities the trouble. Monitoring the free internet is too big a task for any government. But by using the threat of monitoring, Iran‘s administration can free itself to focus on words or phrases, or people, it knows to distrust.

But this is just the harbinger. Since 2009, authorities have been warning periodically about a project for a “Halal Internet”: an intranet somewhat on the model of corporations’ internal messaging systems, allowing supervised communication within the country, but cut off from the external world.   This is the technologically competent version of the Cairo Solution. You shut the Internet, but you shift the parts you need to another network, one you can control.

It’s already coming. Early in 2011, a government techie told the Iranian press that

soon 60% of the nation’s homes and businesses would be on the new, internal network. Within two years it would extend to the entire country, he said.

Reza Taghipour, the Minister of Information and Communications Technology (an Orwellian title under the circumstances), has announced it will be ready in May. “Privacy, security, and cheapness are the goals of this project,” Taghipour added. (Privacy is publicity; security is vulnerability; cheap is China.)

Meanwhile, the chief of national police, Ahmadi Moghadam, warned that “Google search is not a search engine but a spy machine!”  He comforted concerned searchers: “We have all these services here in Iran, more secure and better performing, so we can cut the foreigners’ connections to our content.” The appeal to xenophobia, both in the fear of alien espionage and the prospect of an improved, indigenous Google, is blatant. It isn’t us watching you, the government assures you, it’s the Zionists behind your screen. And our super gadgets will defend you! It reminds one of the Ceausescu-era Romanian “protochronists,” a sect of pseudoscholars who believed that Romania had invented everything first, and better. The Renaissance started in Wallachia, the Orthodox created the Reformation, and Aurel Vlaicu built the first airplane. Not for nothing is the project being compared to North Korea’s self-imposed isolation. Dictators, at a certain level, think as similarly as they force their subjects to do.

Kim Jong Il looks at the Internet

This information came to me first from Iranian LGBT rights activists. Queers in Iran are, though, in much the same situation as other dissidents.  All had built a protective carapace, a niqab of anonymity, out of the Internet’s capacities; and they’re faced with that being ripped away.   It’s a contrast to (straight) dissidents’ strategies in Egypt in the last decade: comparatively few went undercover on the Web. A large number of activists and organizations preferred transparency, not only to challenge a regime that was palpably losing some of its repressive acuity and power, but, it seemed, to confuse and swamp it with a surfeit of information. This has never been much of an option in Iran, where the cloud of information is smaller and wispier, and security forces’ ability to retaliate has been unquestionable.

Of course, xenophobia in Iran has a certain rationality at the moment. One expert inside the country told the Guardian that “Iran has fears of an outside cyber-attack like that of the Stuxnet, and is trying to protect its sensitive data from being accessible on the World Wide Web.” The Stuxnet virus, an American-Israeli bit of malware, got into the Iranian system through infected USB sticks left for workers to pocket like poisoned chewing gum; it seriously damaged the national nuclear program. The killings of Iranian nuclear scientists, one of whom was bombed today, tend also to promote a vivid paranoia. “Despite what others think,” the expert said, the “intranet is not primarily aimed at curbing the global Internet but Iran is creating it to secure its own military, banking and sensitive data from the outside world.”

“At the same time,” he added, “Iran is working on software robots to analyse exchanging emails and chats, attempting to find more effective ways of controlling users’ online activities.”  Regardless of the halal Internet’s intent, surveillance will tighten.

What can you, or anyone do? Activists convey a twofold message to the West: first, to shout to governments that sanctions, viruses, and bombs redound in the repression of the dissidents they profess to support. Second, if the US and other states are developing Internet technologies that can circumvent censorship and firewalls, speed the damn things up.   The Obama administration has promised an “Internet in a suitcase” to dissenters in countries it dislikes. It will

rely on a version of “mesh network” technology, which can transform devices like cellphones or personal computers to create an invisible wireless web without a centralized hub. In other words, a voice, picture or e-mail message could hop directly between the modified wireless devices — each one acting as a mini cell “tower” and phone — and bypass the official network.

It sounds a bit more unwieldy than the compact tchotchkes Q gave James Bond at the outset of every film:

This pen, Bond, is mightier than any sword: it contains a three-megaton warhead.

[T]he suitcase would include small wireless antennas, which could increase the area of coverage; a laptop to administer the system; thumb drives and CDs to spread the software to more devices and encrypt the communications; and other components like Ethernet cables.

The New York Times adds with sang-froid:

Developers caution that independent networks come with downsides: repressive governments could use surveillance to pinpoint and arrest activists who use the technology or simply catch them bringing hardware across the border.

Right, if you’re bristling with all those cords and antennae. And doing 2,300 words’ worth of interviews with the Times about the project doesn’t help either.

Tell your governments — what? Tell them dissidents need help, and they’re not helping. Something, somewhere, has to give.

8 thoughts on “Iran shuts down the Internet: The how and why

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