Iran had a blunt solution this past weekend to an eruption of protests by angry citizens: Turn off the internet. All of it.
Web shutdowns have become a common strategy for repressive governments, but experts say this weekend’s response to widespread demonstrations over a spike in gasoline prices is the biggest yet. It took officials 24 hours to achieve their aim, but once they did, only 5% of regular users — including top politicians such as the supreme leader — were still online. Those who were cut off were unable to communicate beyond Iran’s borders and within them.
Iran’s move is notable for its complexity. Many developing nations whose leaders have hit the switch recently have had to do just that: hit the switch, and only one, because the country connects through a single, state-sponsored service provider. The internet in Iran, by contrast, is more diverse. The government didn’t purchase it off the shelf for an all-in-one installation, but private contractors built it bit by bit. Taking it away required hitting multiple switches, or sending multiple orders to multiple parties.
The threat going forward is that the nations that remain mostly unwired will create networks that are, as Alp Toker of watchdog organization Netblocks puts it, “disruptable by design” — much like China’s carefully constructed Great Firewall. These nations, mostly in Africa and Latin America, are already at the center of a battle over whether the web will remain worldwide at all, or whether countries will maintain sovereign internets with tight government control.
A law laying the foundation for this vision of control took effect in Russia this month, allowing the government to block traffic from abroad “in an emergency” and imposing requirements on service providers that would make it easier to impose the sort of shutdown Iran achieved this past weekend — except, perhaps, without the 24-hour slog. Russia also led a United Nations resolution whose goal is a treaty that could expand the definition of cybercrime so broadly, and give governments so much leeway to prevent supposed incursions, that all sorts of ordinary uses of the internet could end up prohibited.
Russia, China and their allies want the same thing Iran wanted: to shut up and shut in their citizens.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE WASHINGTON POST