It is said that in politics, as in warfare, the adversary always gets a vote. Today, there is perhaps no clearer example of this truism than the struggle taking place over Iran’s connection to the World-Wide Web. For, even as the Internet has emerged as a crucial medium for expression, politics and coordination among Iran’s assorted opposition factions, it has also become a domain that Iran’s clerical regime has tried to dominate – with considerable success.
Just how much became apparent in mid-November, when a new cycle of unrest precipitated by the Iranian government's decision to significantly hike domestic prices for gasoline rocked the Islamic Republic. Predictably, those “petroleum protests” quickly became a broader outpouring of discontent directed at the Islamic Republic and its Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Yet the uprising was quickly defused by the Iranian regime’s adroit response, which included a rapid, comprehensive shutdown of Internet access throughout the country. Early on November 17th, the Iranian regime blocked virtually all Web traffic within its national borders and kept it off for nearly a week, until regime security forces had succeeded in sufficiently gaining control of the situation.
The online capabilities exhibited by the Iranian regime in recent days aren’t, in fact, new. They represent the culmination of a decade of painstaking official investments in suppression technologies and Internet control mechanisms.
That focus dates back to the summer of 2009, when the fraudulent reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Iranian presidency galvanized the largest outpouring of opposition to the Iranian regime in its then three-decade-old history. In the months that followed, Iran's various opposition elements relied extensively on the Internet and social networking tools to organize their efforts, communicate their messages to the outside world, and rally public opinion to their side. In turn, the Iranian regime utilized information technologies extensively in its eventual suppression of the protests. Simply put, the Iranian regime followed the “Green Movement” online, and throttled it there.
There it has remained ever since. In the years since the 2009 protests, Iranian authorities have made heavy, systematic investments in capabilities aimed at controlling the Internet and restricting the ability of their captive population to access the World-Wide Web.
Of these, by far the most ambitious is Iran’s attempt to create its own parallel Internet. For more than a decade now, the Iranian regime has been working on a “second” or “halal” internet that would shunt domestic web users to a curated online reality – diverting them to regime-approved websites and resources that reinforce the legitimacy and authority of the Islamic Republic. The regime has expended enormous resources on this effort. As of February 2018, the project, formally known as the National Information Network (NIN), was believed to have cost the Iranian government more than $6 billion. And work on the initiative is still ongoing, despite crippling U.S. sanctions, demonstrating just how much importance the Iranian regime places on being able to isolate its population from the broader world.
But to what end? In May of 2019, the Islamic Republic announced publicly that the initiative (which it has billed as an effort to improve connectivity throughout the country) was more than three-quarters complete. What that actually means, however, remains an open question. Iranian officials say that the NIN is necessary to keep Iran wired in the face of a “possible Internet disconnection” – ostensibly by a hostile power such as the United States. However, the true purpose of the NIN appears to be both broader and more fundamental: to provide an antidote to the “blasphemy, anti-security teachings, and [destruction of] the identity of the youth” that Iranian authorities believe is being facilitated by the broader, Western-influenced Internet.
Creating such a self-contained online ecosystem, however, also requires investments in alternatives to popular Web resources. That is why Iran’s government is estimated to have spent in excess of $1.5 billion on the development of indigenous search engines (among them Parsijoo and Yooz) to replace external webcrawlers like Google and direct users to regime propaganda and materials manipulated by authorities. Iran has also erected a local alternative to YouTube, known as Mehr, in an attempt to divert Iranians from watching online content that they cannot control or manipulate, and which might be subversive to the regime. And in an effort to dilute the runaway popularity of social networking and messaging applications such as Telegram, Iranian authorities have heavily promoted “homegrown” alternatives such as iGap and Soroush.
At the same time, Iranian authorities have supplemented their investments in a parallel Internet with mechanisms that are designed to restrict access to the current one. These tactics are myriad, and over the past decade have included: the installation of a sophisticated Chinese-origin surveillance system for monitoring phone, mobile and Internet communications; blocks on most virtual private networks (VPNs) used by Iranians to circumvent the government's Internet filters; the passage of new, restrictive governmental "guidelines" on Internet cafes; the physical intimidation and arrest of web activists and online users; pressure on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to close sites the government claims violate laws governing content, and; the formation of the “Supreme Council of Cyberspace,” a government agency with sweeping official powers that is tasked with the "constant and comprehensive monitoring over the domestic and international cyberspace" and its regulation.
The results are striking. According to human rights watchdog Freedom House, Iran today ranks as one of the least free countries in the world for web usage. In the organization’s 2019 Freedom on the Net report, Iran scored just 15 out of 100 possible points on account of widespread blockages of websites and social media services, as well as arrests and the intimidation of web users.
Cumulatively, these factors help to explain why the Iranian government’s November clampdown proved to be so brutally effective. They have also helped to outline a fundamental challenge confronting any serious Iranian opposition movement: if it hopes to ultimately be successful against the ayatollahs, it will need to be able to continue communicating with Iranians in spite of regime suppression.
Here, the picture is bleak. It’s no coincidence that, during the latest protests, Iranian opposition activists petitioned the United States and European nations to provide alternative Internet connectivity, but to little avail. While the issue is, at bottom, a question of political will, it is also one of technical capability – and current options available to the West leave much to be desired.
“A country theoretically could, for all intents and purposes, cut itself off from the greater World Wide Web,” explains Eric Ormes, a cybersecurity expert with the American Foreign Policy Council. “It depends on their ability to control the various access points leading out to the global Internet, but once done, they can control those connections as they see fit.”
Nevertheless, makeshift options for coordination do exist. “Mesh networks,” harnessing mobile devices outfitted with the proper apps, can allow activists to connect within a small regional area. (Today, protesters in hotspots like Hong Kong and Lebanon are doing just that using an app called Bridgefy.) It is also possible to “piggyback” on connections made by phone-connected devices (such as personal computers with modems) in order to send packets of text to a forum or online bulletin board, although such an approach by necessity relies on state-controlled infrastructure that could be taken offline.
At bottom, however, these are imperfect fixes. “If you truly want to bypass the ability of the government to block you from accessing the Internet, you need to create new access points to the Internet not controlled by them,” says Ormes.
Emerging technologies hold out at least some promise in this regard. For instance, billionaire inventor Elon Musk’s SpaceX company is currently working on creating a space-based internet capability through the deployment of a satellite constellation in low-earth orbit. This system, known as “Starlink,” would be broadly accessible – but only to those with the proper equipment (specialized antennae that would need to be conspicuously mounted outdoors). Meanwhile, Google’s “Project Loon” is a set of “stratospheric balloons” intended for deployment over areas that lack internet access – or, potentially, where internet access has been cut – as a way of providing a persistent connection. Yet, because of their nature, these balloons aren’t particularly survivable, and can easily be shot down by the nation-states over whose territory they fly.
That, in a nutshell, is the state of the current struggle over the Iranian internet. Iran’s clerical regime has clearly come to see the World-Wide Web as an existential threat to its repressive official ideology, and as a result,has made enormous investments in being able to sever access to it – or, at a minimum, to divert users to other options and discredit its content. It is, moreover, willing to do so despite the high costs incurred as a result. (During the November protests, for instance, online commerce became virtually impossible within Iran, Iranian companies lost the ability to track shipments, and the country’s already fragile stock market declined still further.) Countervailing technologies, meanwhile, remain imperfect and embryonic in nature. And, at least for the moment, they are still well within the capacity of the Iranian regime to control and counter.