OAKLAND, CALIF. - The Iranian people have experienced days without the internet, the result of a government-backed shutdown as a response to nationwide protests over gas price increases.
This isn’t the first time the Tehran government has blocked Iranians' access to parts of the internet or to social media sites. But observers say the current shutdown, which began Saturday night, has been nearly complete, with few residents still with internet access.
“It’s a coup against internet freedom,” said Amir Rashidi, an internet security and digital rights researcher at the Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Disrupting internet and blocking content are things they do. We get used to it. But this kind of thing — a total internet shutdown — they have never done that.”
"Unlike previous efforts at censorship and bandwidth throttling, the internet of Iran is presently experiencing a multi-day wholesale disconnection for much of its population – arguably the largest such event ever for Iran." says @DougMadory https://t.co/8HE5oClY96— InternetIntelligence (@InternetIntel) November 18, 2019
In prior disruptions, some Iranians have been able to circumvent blockages with digital tools, such as encryption and others that allow anonymous communication. But those tools are not helping this time, experts said.
That may be because tightening U.S. sanctions against Iran have led technology firms such as Google and others to make their technologies less available to the Iranian people, Rashidi said.
Berhan Taye, a senior policy analyst with Access Now, said the Iranian shutdown is “a bit more intricate this time around.” In the past, digital civil liberties groups like hers have been able to help people with technologies that allow communication to continue.
“We have technically not seen something like this,” she said. “And the whole country is off the grid, which is troubling.”
Taye said the Iranian government systematically targeted mobile internet, then fixed lines, then the messaging service, with “each channel for circumvention disappeared one by one.”
Internet blackout in Iran still going...— InternetIntelligence (@InternetIntel) November 19, 2019
"Unlike previous efforts at censorship and throttling, Iran is experiencing a multi-day wholesale disconnect for much of its population – arguably the largest such event ever for Iran." writes @DougMadoryhttps://t.co/edmgIJ8b0V pic.twitter.com/ckjgTxDMO9
Unlike some countries, Iran hasn’t had an internet kill switch, a central node for cutting off the internet.
One reason for Iran’s success at blocking the internet, experts said, may be its project to create a wholly separate internal network -- the National Information Network. As part of building the internet network, the government has been able to consolidate disparate aspects of the hardware and software of the existing network through one government-run provider, giving it more control.
The project has concerned outside observers, such as the Trump administration in Washington.
“Countries that take such desperate actions prove to the world that they are afraid of their own people,” the State Department said in a May 23 statement to VOA Persian.
Now, Tehran appears to have the ability to shut down the internet while allowing the country’s infrastructure, such as finance, hospitals and other institutions, to keep running.
Brian Hook, Washington's special envoy for Iran, said the United States is working to help Iranians by providing “workarounds to help the people to work around the Iranian regime shutting down the internet and we think that will help some people to connect to the internet so they can continue to get out their videos.”
What those workarounds might be remain to be seen.
Observers fear that what the Iranian internet shutdown shows is perhaps a new playbook for regimes that seek to control if and when their people connect to the outside world.