Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Can the U.S. Flip Iran’s Internet Back On?

Iran’s government effectively shut down the country’s internet to repress a popular protest movement. But how long can that last?

David Auerbach
November 22, 2019
Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Image
Iranians walk past a local bank branch that was damaged during demonstrations against petrol price hikes, on Nov. 20, 2019, in Shahriar, west of Tehran Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Image
Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Image
Iranians walk past a local bank branch that was damaged during demonstrations against petrol price hikes, on Nov. 20, 2019, in Shahriar, west of Tehran Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Image

Protests that began last week in the Iranian city of Ahvaz, triggered by a 50% rise in gas prices, spread to cities across the country driven by popular discontent with the economy and political leadership of the Islamic Republic, which responded by unleashing state security services in a brutal crackdown. In addition to the standard tear gas and baton beatings, there have been incidents “corroborated by video footage” where “snipers have also shot into crowds of people from rooftops and, in one case, a helicopter,” according to an Amnesty International report, which estimates that more than 100 protesters have been killed so far. But there is another dimension to the state’s strategy of repression: a near total shutdown of the internet that had lasted for five days as of Thursday.

The Iranian government’s shutdown of the internet within the country had two goals: preventing Iranians from communicating with the rest of the world, and preventing them from communicating with each other (friends have reported that it’s not just the internet—mobile and landline phone access is either spotty or nonexistent). While Iran’s own National Information Network remains up, it is a government-controlled network and gateway, letting nothing unapproved out. In response, a number of people including prominent officials like the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, have called for the U.S. to intervene to restore internet access in Iran. “We have the technical ability to turn the internet on for the people of Iran,” Grenell tweeted last Sunday, tagging President Trump and Mike Pompeo.

Countries, the U.S. foremost among them, have long advocated for their interests by leveraging media power, whether through Voice of America radio or the Reagan era’s “Project Truth” and “Project Democracy.” The possibility of overriding Iran’s shutdown is a more advanced form of such propaganda efforts, as would be efforts to hack Iran’s National Information Network, a plan no doubt being considered by state and nonstate actors alike. Tehran, contrariwise, faces a burgeoning problem for all repressive states in the modern era. The internet isn’t merely an opposition communication system, but the central channel of communication today. The shutdown in Iran may atomize political opposition, but it also cripples the ability to conduct commerce and engage in the modern world of capital,, deepening the very economic problems that sparked protests in the first place.

While there isn’t some switch that will suddenly restore connections to Iran, Grenell is right in that many technologies do exist that can circumvent the sort of total blocks Iran is trying to establish. Iran didn’t just flip a switch off, either. The Iranian government is fighting a war on several fronts to keep the internet down. In the main, they are succeeding. Netblocks, an NGO that monitors internet use around the world and advocates for open access, reported Wednesday that 90 hours after the government’s shutdown, internet use in Iran was down to just 5% of the standard level of activity.

On Monday, journalist Mohammad Mosaed had to try 42 different proxies, which act as illegal “bridges” between his own Iranian IP and the outside world, not subject to the country’s restrictions, before finding a working one that let him post to Twitter. This sort of blackout is not unprecedented. India has regularly done it to Jammu and Kashmir, and of course North Korea is wholly and permanently isolated. But Iran is atypical in how totally a developed and cosmopolitan a population has been shut out of the internet. Isolating their entire country comes with greater prices for the Iranian government.

To bypass Iran’s attempt at preventing unauthorized information from reaching the wider world—like reports of snipers firing into crowds or protesters— individuals have frequently used proxies and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), essentially means of masking their internet identity and operating from a false “digital address.” But Iran has evidently cracked down on proxy and VPN use with both technological and police pressure. To prevent protesters and sympathizers from reaching each other, apps that would normally allow within-country communication, like Skype or WhatsApp, have been cut off from the infrastructure that negotiates connections. As Mosaed tweeted, “In the absence of the Internet, metropolises have become thousands of dense small villages.

Theoretically, there are ways the U.S. could “airdrop” internet access back into Iran. Methods include: decentralized and encrypted communication applications; satellites that Iranians could reach via samizdat servers within Iran and use to connect to the internet; and assisting with the creation of ad hoc peer-to-peer or decentralized mesh networks that would subvert Tehran’s centralized internet infrastructure. Ironically, the CIA, FBI, and NSA have often inveighed against the very technologies that might help Iranians today—precisely because they are immune to government control in the absence of a police state. “There is no such thing as absolute privacy,” former FBI Director James Comey said in 2017. “[The] government can invade–that’s the bargain.” Yet such technology exists, and while these government-circumventing networks would be far less efficient and reliable, they could still connect people inside Iran to information from the outside world and provide basic communication functionality.

That is, if the regime permits it. The real challenge would come from logistical difficulties rather than technical aspects of the plan. The Iranian government is unlikely to simply sit back and watch a large percentage of its citizens use apps or technologies that circumvent its will. The Iranian government still controls the physical space and resources of its country, and so even if traffic is encrypted, disguised, or otherwise hidden from plain sight, Iran can still cut whatever electronic links as long as it’s willing to accept whatever collateral damage (human rights, a breakdown in wider communications, popular discontent) that come with such action. Alternative networks can be monitored, phone purchases can be regulated, and app downloads can be tracked. Even if the Iranian government can’t electronically surveil the actual usage of these apps, the police and Revolutionary Guard Corps, which are already well practiced in the techniques of surveillance and repression, can search citizens, check their phones, and harshly punish anyone who is found to be violating the crackdown.

Yet this shutdown is costing Iran economically. One nonprofit estimated it at $60 million a day, though such numbers are hazy. Regardless, the effect on productivity must be devastating, likely to increase friction within the regime as the long-term effects of a politically effective but economically exhausting shutdown build. It seems more likely that economic costs will force a reopening to the world rather than any technical solution being proposed. In this sense, Iran’s problem is that its censorship is simply not advanced enough. Despite officially banning YouTube and Twitter years ago, Iran never took steps to seriously block them, until now.

By contrast, China has spent decades developing the so-called Great Firewall of China, an elaborate and remarkably effective series of granular controls on what can and cannot get in and out of China over the internet, building parallel services like Baidu and Weibo where necessary while allowing both essential and harmless communications across international lines. Combined with an extensive surveillance apparatus and a great deal more economic clout, China has been able to dictate the terms of its internet connectivity quite carefully, to the point where its citizens are constantly online yet know full well what not to discuss.

Iran is trying to walk a line between the two paradigms of the authoritarian internet today, China and North Korea. North Korea simply digitally severed itself from the outside world, letting almost nothing in or out, at great economic cost but with an equally great gain in social control. The Chinese approach was to fully integrate the internet, both as a communications platform and as a social space, into the state’s repressive apparatus. While China has continually had “leaks” through VPNs and other circumventing mechanism, it has cut down on the average citizen’s ability to access the “forbidden” internet by building out its own infrastructure. Total control is not necessary, as long as the majority of the country follows the rules and examples are made of dissenters. China has uniquely and skillfully integrated industry, government, and technology in its locus of digital control. For the majority of China, the internet is fully modulated by the government, giving the country’s political leadership the concomitant ability to spy on its citizens and prod their behaviors. This outcome was not merely the result of political foresight or deliberate planning on the part of the leadership in Beijing, it required a massive capital investment in the internet as a piece of critical state infrastructure. Even if other authoritarian governments wanted to engineer the internet within their own societies along the Chinese lines, many can’t afford it in terms of technology or human resources.

Lacking China’s prestige and sophistication, Iran is attempting a North Korea-style crackdown, with the effect being that even essential benefits the internet provides to the Iranian government are likely suffering quite badly. But economically, technologically, and politically, Iran is unlikely to be able to reach North Korea’s level of isolation. As a result, Iran is caught in a no man’s zone between North Korea and China, needing more internet technology than the former but unable to titrate its internet like the latter. Iran’s protesters are no doubt aware of this and are surely awaiting the day when the government blinks. Yet even if Iran’s government backs down, the China model still stands as a reference point, and the authoritarians of Iran will soon be doubling down on their study of it. Whether they can successfully copy it may be, for them, the difference between life and death.

David Auerbach is the author of Bitwise: A Life in Code (Pantheon). He is a writer and software engineer who has worked for Google and Microsoft. His writing has ap­peared in The Times Literary Supplement, MIT Technology Review, The Nation, Slate, The Daily Beast, n+1, and Bookforum, among many other publications. He has lectured around the world on technology, literature, philosophy, and stupidity. He lives in New York City.