Amid widespread demonstrations over rising gasoline prices, Iranians began experiencing internet slowdowns over the last few days that became a near-total internet and mobile data blackout on Saturday. The government is apparently seeing to silence protestors and quell unrest. So how does a country like Iran switch off internet to a population of more than 80 million? It’s not an easy thing to do.
Though some countries, namely China, architected their internet infrastructure from the start with government control in mind, most don’t have a central set of levers they can pull to influence country-wide access to content or connectivity. But regimes around the world, including those in Russia and Iran, have increasingly been retrofitting traditional private and decentralized networks with cooperation agreements, technical implants, or a combination to give officials more influence. In countries like Ethiopia, Venezuela, and Iraq, along with disputed regions like Kashmir, government-led social media blocking and more extensive outages have become the norm.
“This is the most wide-scale internet shutdown that we’ve seen in Iran,” says Adrian Shahbaz, research director at the pro-democracy group Freedom House, which tracks internet censorship and restriction worldwide. “It’s surprising to see the Iranian authorities block all internet connections rather than only international internet connections, because the latter is a tactic that they’ve used in the past. It could mean they are more fearful of their own people and worry that they cannot control the information space amidst these economic protests.”
The process to block an entire country’s internet connectivity depends on the set-up. Places like Ethiopia that have relatively limited internet proliferation typically have just one government-controlled internet service provider, perhaps alongside some smaller private ISPs. But all usually gain access from a single undersea cable or international network node, creating “upstream” choke points that officials can use to essentially block a country’s connectivity at its source.
The more extensive and diverse a country’s infrastructure, though, the more involved the digital blackout process becomes. Alp Toker, the director of non-partisan connectivity tracking group NetBlocks, says it took Iranian authorities about 24 hours to completely block the nation’s inbound and outbound traffic—leaving it hovering at about 5 to 7 percent of typical connectivity levels. Top politicians, like supreme leader Seyed Ali Khamenei, have still been using Twitter and other public platforms.
In a country without one or two obvious digital bottlenecks, authorities must coordinate with multiple telecoms, including ISPs and mobile data providers, to cut access. And they also need to overcome redundancies and algorithmic protections meant to make networks resilient in case of unintentional outages or bugs. For example, the internet is designed with failsafe properties that allow it to sort of quarantine and route around areas of a network that are suffering connectivity issues or other instability. NetBlocks’ Toker says that perhaps Iran’s internet slowdowns in the lead-up to the full outage were the result of telecoms working on behalf of the government to essentially defeat their own system reliability protections.
“To shut down a country’s access to internet, it takes a lot of preparations. We are talking about software and hardware layers, and also regulatory frameworks,” says Lukasz Olejnik, an independent security and privacy adviser and research associate at the Center for Technology and Global Affairs at Oxford University. “The more networks and connections a country has, the more difficult it is to cut access for good. And the question also is whether you want to cut in-country network access, too, in addition to flows between the country and outside world.”
Increasingly over the past decade, the Iranian regime has focused on building out a centralized national “intranet.” That allows it to provide citizens with web services while policing all content on the network and limiting information from external sources. Known as the “National information network” or SHOMA, the effort has centered on the state-owned Telecommunication Company of Iran (also called Mokhabarat), which is run by a number of former government officials. In the process of establishing this internal web, the Iranian regime has taken more and more control over both public and private connectivity in the name of national scurity.