December 10, 2019
“God willing, we will be able to make our national information network so powerful that it will cater to people’s needs and they won’t need to go outside [to the external internet].”
These were the words of President Hasan Rouhani, on December 8, during his budget speech to Iran’s parliament for the upcoming Iranian calendar year. “The Supreme Leader has called for [such a network],” Rouhani added, “and we are following up on it through the Supreme Cyberspace Council. Our people will experience a better [online] situation.”
This “better situation” was indeed witnessed by Iranians. While they were protesting last month against raised fuel prices, and were being shot in the streets by security forces, Iranians’ access was blocked and only a select few at the top of the Islamic Republic could go online.
Some believe the regime will not cut internet access again, they way it did in November; others, however, say that not only will the regime cut access again, but next time the block will be longer, or may even be permanent.
On November 18, a United Nations committee passed a Russia-backed cybercrime resolution by a vote of 88 to 58, with 34 countries abstaining. Russia, Belarus, Cambodia, China, Iran, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Syria and Venezuela sponsored the resolution, titled “Countering the use of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes.”
As the Washington Post writes, “the resolution creates a drafting group to create terms of reference for a global ‘cybercrime’ treaty. But the cybercrimes of primary concern here aren’t hacking attacks, privacy violations or identity thefts. Instead, this treaty is intended to create international law that would make it easier for countries to cooperate to repress political dissent.” In other words, such a law would allow countries like Iran to create virtual walls between “international” and “national” internets.
Thirty-six rights groups argued in a letter that the resolution is so vague it could lead to the criminalization of ordinary online activities that journalists, human rights groups, and other members of civil society rely on, such as using encrypted chat applications. The resolution could also “give wide-ranging power to governments to block websites deemed critical of the authorities, or even entire networks, applications and services that facilitate online exchange of and access to information,” the coalition of civil society organizations wrote in its appeal.
Russia recently enacted a “sovereign internet” law which, in theory, will allow the Kremlin to disconnect its internet from the rest of the world. The law, which went into effect in November, also pushes internet service providers to install software that allows the government to track and filter internet traffic, giving it a stronger ability to crack down on dissent.
Before the November protests in Iran, there had been temporary internet outages in Iran; however, they were usually blamed on other factors. For example, in August of this year, the communications minister blamed a one-hour outage on the “infrastructure communications company.” But the recent nationwide internet shutdown was unprecedented.
Internet access was blocked in just a few provinces after the protests started. But the protests soon spread, and by 6pm on November 16, the internet was fully blocked across Iran. Access was not restored until a full week later, and then only to a few provinces, including North Khorasan, South Khorasan, Golestan, Semnan, Yazd, Hamadan, Chahar Mahal and Bakhtiari, Ardabil, Zanjan, Ilam and Tehran. But took 15 days for Khuzestan province and 18 days for Sistan and Baluchistan province to regain access.
The city of Sarbaz in Sistan and Baluchistan, a province with a sizeable Sunni Muslim population in Shia majority Iran, was the last town to regain access, just yesterday, on December 8. The people of this city were apparently punished longer than others for protesting the arrest of Molavi Fazlorahman Kouhi, a Sunni clergyman and the leader of Friday prayers in Sarbaz.
Iranians now increasingly fear recurring or even a permanent internet shutdown – and President Rouhani’s statements in the parliament can only worsen these fears. Protests aside, the internet shutdown was extremely costly for businesses and vital services; now, Iranians have grasped the vital role the internet plays in their lives, as never before. But technology experts serving the Islamic Republic have embarked on a race against time to make the “national internet” a reality and to give the regime far closer control over the people and a more effective tool for crushing dissent.