Iran has a notable history of maintaining a tight grip over the Internet within the country. Since 2009, there has been an increasing number of Internet shutdowns in Iran, ranging from local and regional events to a near-total national blackout in November 2019. During this event, the Iranian government shut down the Internet for a week across the entire country in response to anti-government protests, with connectivity to the outside world down to just 4-5%.
Though this wasn’t the first time the world had witnessed a shutdown that rendered an entire country cut off from the Internet for multiple days – and it wasn’t even the first shutdown imposed by Iran that year – it is by far the most sophisticated. The November 2019 blackout in Iran was described as the “most severe disconnection… in any country in terms of its technical complexity and breadth.”
Building a Domestic Network
The Internet shutdown of November 2019 was an unveiling of a careful and meticulous exercise undertaken by the government since 2012. Over the last decade, the government has invested heavily in developing its own domestic network known as the National Information Network (NIN), with the stated aim of establishing a “safe and pure network”, which will eliminate the need for filtering and censorship. The government claims that the NIN will also be set up as a defence mechanism against cyber attacks, as it will be independent of the global Internet, and will provide faster and more reliable connections.
The NIN allows the government to keep crucial networking functions under its control and ensures that critical national infrastructure remains online in the event of Internet shutdowns. This was the case during the shutdown of November 2019 – domestic Internet services and critical infrastructures such as government services and banking remained online, while access to ‘foreign’ Internet services and websites was cut off.
An investigation by Article 19 into the technical mechanisms of the shutdown revealed strong trends toward Internet infrastructure centralization. In 2019, all of Iran’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were connected to five international gateways through two government bodies. Gateways provide access to international systems and manage incoming and outgoing traffic. All five of these gateways were controlled by the Institute for Research, and Fundamental Sciences (IPM) under the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology, and the Telecommunication Infrastructure Company (TIC), under the Ministry of ICT. For the purpose of the shutdown, however, the Iranian government did not simply shut down its gateways. To avoid hefty disconnection costs, individual ISPs, which are also controlled by the government, were ordered to suspend services.
Further, in 2021, Iran introduced the Cyberspace Users Rights Protection and Regulation of Key Online Services, popularly referred to as the Protection Bill. The bill will push Iranians to use local services or international services compliant with local laws, and limit the bandwidth that international services can use. In addition, the private sector will be barred from providing Internet infrastructure services in the country. The bill also proposes a fund for developing key online services – services that align with the stated goals of the NIN. Along with increasing surveillance tools and mechanisms, the bill also proposes handing over Internet infrastructure to an ad-hoc agency controlled by the country’s armed forces and security agencies.
A Step Towards the Splinternet
Fundamentally, the Internet is an open, globally-connected network of networks. The public and permissionless model of networking facilitated by the Internet is disrupted when these networks are no longer interoperable due to technical, economic, or political reasons. Iran’s attempts to develop the NIN, propose the Protection Bill, and insulate itself from the global Internet are a step towards fragmenting or splintering the Internet.
China’s model of Internet governance appears to be the most absolute example of Internet fragmentation, manifested with the Great Firewall, which filters information coming into the country by way of deep packet inspection and IP denylisting. However, similar to Russia, Iran’s attempts at developing a domestic network is providing the world with a blueprint for a deeper kind of fragmentation or splintering.
The Internet was founded as a voluntary, collaborative, permissionless network of networks. Its openness and global connectivity have facilitated innumerable benefits for everyone who has access to the Internet. Iran’s efforts at network fragmentation are going to be less reversible and set a dangerous precedent for other actors intent on exerting control over their nation’s Internet.
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