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On November 15, 2019, the Iranian government sparked outrage. The cost of fuel in the country, officials announced, would increase drastically. The cost of the first 60 litres of fuel purchased each month would increase by 50 per cent. Higher volumes would jump 300 per cent.
People took to the streets. The resulting protests and violent government crackdown was the deadliest unrest in the country for more than 40 years. Security forces used water cannons, tear gas and batons as around 200,000 protestors expressed political tensions going far beyond fuel price increases. At times, the authorities opened fire on unarmed protestors.
It’s estimated that up to 1,500 people were killed and 4,800 injured in the protests. Around 7,000 people were arrested. UN officials and civil liberty groups condemned Iran’s “clear violations” of human rights laws and called for the immediate release of those detained.
But it wasn’t just the police on the streets cracking down on protestors. Online, Iran was unleashing one of the world’s most sophisticated internet shutdowns. With communication to the outside world blocked, abuses went unreported. The internet blackout remained in place across the whole country for six days and up to as much as ten days in areas where unrest continued. November 2019 wasn’t the first time Iran had shut down the internet – in fact, it wasn’t even the first time that year. But it was the longest and most sophisticated shut down ever attempted.
Now, new research from human rights organisation Article19 has revealed how officials were able to shut down connectivity for tens of millions of people and utilise an alternative ‘local’ version of the internet that’s been a decade in the making. It maps out Iran’s internet infrastructure and paints a picture of control that’s unlike anything anywhere in the world.
Internet shutdowns take many forms. They can involve services such as social media being blocked or, as happened in Iran, a complete blackout. The UN has opposed internet shutdowns since 2016 when it passed a resolution saying governments should not block or throttle access to information.
But, over several years, Iran has developed an ecosystem of internet services and companies to help it choke the flow of information. This has been driven by national security interests but also out of necessity following US tech sanctions meaning many big web companies cannot legally do business with the country. “The state’s complete control over internet infrastructure enabled shutdowns on the scale of that seen in November 2019,” Saloua Ghazouani, director of Article19 MENA, said in a statement.
This consolidation of technologies means Iran is in an almost standalone position for asserting control over citizens online. This also provides a blueprint for how other regimes can balkanise the global internet. “Iran proved that they are more advanced than any other country willing to shut down the internet,” says Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights and security at human rights organisation Miaan, which was not involved in the research. “In Iran, the big difference is when they shut down the internet, the internal network is working.”
Iran’s ability to shutdown the internet is the culmination of policies, technological developments and centralised control, says Mahsa Alimardani, one of the authors of the Article19 research and an academic at the Oxford Internet Institute. “A lot of the incentive to shut down the internet was to shut down communication channels that were seen to be facilitating a lot of this mobilisation,” Alimardani says. During early parts of the protests people were using traffic app Waze, plus WhatsApp, Telegram and Twitter to organise their action.
This stopped by November 17 when the majority of the country’s internet service providers (ISPs) cut off connections – although connections in some areas were severed before this. The shutdown wasn’t caused by officials using a kill switch or similar all-encompassing mechanism to stop connectivity, instead it was controlled by telling the ISPs to stop providing services.
ISPs were sent notices from Iran’s Communication Regulatory Authority ordering them to stop operating, the researchers report. Official orders are believed to have stemmed from the country’s National Security Council but Article19 says the decision making process lacked transparency.
In Iran, ISPs provide homes and mobile networks with internet connectivity but don’t actually access the global internet themselves. “At the time of the shutdowns, all Iran’s ISPs were connected to five international gateways, operating through two entities,” the researchers write in their report. Over several years the ability to access the international internet was consolidated to these two groups: IPM International Gateway and the TIC Gateway.
At the time of the shutdown NetBlocks, a group that monitors internet shutdowns and connectivity by mapping IP addresses in real-time, reported the scale of the blackout. On September 16, hours after the fuel price hikes were introduced, NetBlocks said connectivity had fallen to seven per cent of usual levels; further falling to five and four per cent as network connections were cut further. NetBlocks described the Iranian shutdowns as the “most severe disconnection” it had ever tracked in any country for its “technical complexity and breadth”.
Despite the scale and seriousness of the shutdown, officials in the country said the action was taken to protect national security. “The internet has not been disrupted, but service providers were instructed to cut it off by the National Security Council,” Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, the country’s technology minister said at the time. He was later sanctioned by the US.
At the centre of Iran’s online blackout infrastructure is the National Information Network (NIN). It’s a form of a local “intranet” that uses technological infrastructure built within the country. The idea of the NIN has existed since the mid-2000s but really started to gain traction after Iran first shut down the internet in 2009, says one Article19 researcher who has knowledge of the country’s technical infrastructure.
“They rushed in and started cutting stuff but the problem was a lot of crucial connections and services also got disconnected,” the researcher, who wishes to remain anonymous due to security concerns, says. They say banks were unable to operate, embassies were shut down and shipping companies couldn’t connect to international cargo systems in earlier shutdowns. “They came up with this design that we’re going to have a redundant loop in the country for domestic traffic. We’re going to replicate all the services like DNS, we are going to build a lot of data centres in the country, we’re going to increase capacity,” they add.
The NIN has been designed to steer traffic towards “state-approved content” and the country has offered faster internet speeds and lower costs to those utilising internal infrastructure, according to Harvard University’s internet monitoring project. That means data centres located within Iran and infrastructure that’s designed to encourage people to use national services.
“Even just a few months before November 2019, there was a lot being done to move payment systems to national payment technologies,” Alimardani says. The Article19 report says efforts have included a push to get developers to create tech alternatives that are based in Iran, such as domestic search engines and alternatives to messaging app Telegram, which the country attempted to block in 2018. “There’s been a lot of effort to promote the Iranian version of Telegram, the Iranian version of WhatsApp,” Alimardani says. “And for these, there’s been a lot of skepticism. And a lot of these apps have failed.”
The Article19 report says during the November 2019 shutdown many of the home-grown services didn’t work, but some of the infrastructure built for the NIN was successful. Government services running through the NIN stayed online despite some early glitches and Snapp, an Uber-like app, and messaging apps Balad and Soroush were accessible through the NIN. “They moved [technology] inside Iran and now everything is ready for the government to shut down the internet,” Rashidi says.
The NIN is very much a work in progress. In September the Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace said it had approved the “institutional mapping” of the NIN and which government bodies should be in charge of it. At around the same time, state press organisations reported a key data centre for the NIN had just opened. The data centre reportedly handles email and national messengers.
Officials have denied that the NIN is a replacement for the global internet. The head of its civil defence organisation, Gholamreza Jalali, is reported as saying the NIN is intended to complement the global internet. But there are mixed messages. “We are preparing for scenarios where the internet will be cut off,” Mohammad-Javad Azari, Iran’s tech minister, said before the shutdowns in 2019. He is also reported to have said the country has completed “the necessary scenarios have been adopted to cut off the internet”.
Article19 says that some decentralisation of Iran’s technical infrastructure has happened since the November 2019 shutdowns but this comes amid a growing global trend of internet shutdowns. “In 2018, we recorded 196 cases around the world. But in 2019, we recorded 233 countries, and India was the major perpetrator of shutdowns – it accounted for 181 of the shutdowns,” says Felicia Anthonio, lead on internet shutdowns at digital rights group AccessNow. Ethiopia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Algeria, Somalia and Pakistan have all shut down internet connections to some extent in 2020.
“When you look at where we started from, and where we are now, it shows that governments tend to copy some of these measures just to silence people,” Anthonio says. She explains that some officials in African countries have cited shutdowns in other nations when talking about their own plans.
Despite widespread shutdowns, Iran’s isolated internal network is relatively standalone. A similar plan has also been floated by Russia with the country claiming successful tests at the end of 2019. “I think the international community must see Iran as a lesson learned,” Rashidi says. “This is the fragmentation of the internet.”
In Iran, a brief shutdown is suspected to have happened in one area in July 2020. The country’s control connections has created a chilling effect, with people concerned about shutdowns when any small outages occur. “Every time they expect another internet shutdown,” Rashidi says.
Matt Burgess is WIRED’s deputy digital editor. He tweets from @mattburgess1
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