The storm has passed, and Iran's internet is starting to return to all systems go. When people in cities across the country began protesting a litany of issues at the end of last month, Iran's leaders did what many countries have done when confronted with such a situation: They imposed restrictions on the internet. But unlike some countries that have reached for a sledgehammer to swat a fly, Iranian officials didn't opt for an absolute shutdown of the country's internet. Instead, they resorted to more nuanced measures that showed they have succeeded in developing a far more sophisticated infrastructure to manage the web since the country last experienced such turmoil in 2009.
The emergence of the internet and other communications platforms has led to an unprecedented increase in the access to information, but such developments have led countries to pursue measures to control and filter the digital flow. China has developed one of the world's most comprehensive internet control mechanisms with the Great Firewall, and now Iran has its own monitoring success story. Iran's National Information Network may lack the name cachet of the Great Firewall, but its performance in strangling access to opposition content during the most recent protests proved that Iran is hard on China's heels in terms of controlling the flow of information. What's more, the network might just strengthen the hand of Iranian conservatives in co-opting President Hassan Rouhani's attempts to foster a more open Iranian internet.
Tehran Learns Its Lessons From 2009
The Iranian state has long sought to protect the message of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and isolate and eliminate oppositional ideologies and points of view, whether they come from abroad or from home. Unsurprisingly, the emergence of the internet and mobile networks has issued a profound challenge to the state's stranglehold on communications tools, allowing greater contact and interaction between Iran and the rest of the world, as well as among Iranians themselves. The appearance of such technology ended the hegemony of a rigorously controlled media that only presented government-approved narratives by opening a space for opposition figures to coordinate protests despite the authorities.
The conflict between the government's drive to maintain its message and opposition attempts to organize on digital platforms was a critical aspect of the 2009 Green Movement protests, a largely middle-class affair that erupted in response to alleged vote rigging in favor of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against reformist candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi. Some observers quickly anointed the protests, the first major protests to occur in Iran during the information age, as the "Twitter Revolution," but digital penetration rates suggest such descriptions were hasty: At the time, only 13.8 percent of Iranians could access the internet, while fewer than one in 75 Iranians possessed a smartphone. Thus, instead of organizing over social media, protesters sought support via the comparatively analogue method of text message, as well as good old-fashioned word of mouth.
Although smartphones and the internet played a relatively minor role in the Green Movement – the world would witness more of their power during the Arab Spring two years later – authorities did exercise strict control over the internet and mobile communications during the unrest. The Telecommunications Company of Iran has long exercised a monopoly over the country's fixed-line infrastructure and, at the time, possessed a majority market share in the mobile segment. The company is closely connected to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other bodies that are controlled or influenced by the government. During the protests, Iran wielded the ability to control the flow of digital information, even as it failed to master the problem of scale: Tehran could either pull the plug on the country's entire internet or it could opt for the painstaking and relatively ineffective alternative of targeting only individual websites for closure.
Beyond the immediate fear that new technology could be harnessed to organize protests, Iran's leaders also worried that such inventions could weaken their ability to manage the access to information and the transfer of ideas. Responding to the fears – as well as the Stuxnet cyberattack on Iran's nuclear facilities in 2010 – authorities announced plans in 2012 for a "halal internet" that would grant the state a more comprehensive control over the internet. The plans resulted in the establishment of the National Information Network and a new government body, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC). Since its foundation, Iran has moved to consolidate the SCC, which features members from both the elected government and Iran's unelected institutions like the IRGC, as well as officials appointed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, as the primary body responsible for monitoring and controlling Iran's cyberspace. In fact, the SCC has acquired such prominence that the United States slapped sanctions on the organization on Jan. 12 in response to the most recent crackdown on protesters.
Iran Avoids Pulling the Plug
In the wake of the Green Movement, some Iranian conservatives expressed hopes that the country would create its own intranet that was entirely isolated from the global web so that the government could retain far greater control over the content available to domestic users. While such a plan is technically feasible, it is impractical for a country wishing to integrate into the world economy.
Instead, officials developed the National Information Network with the goal of creating a web that hosts a number of domestic services that remain largely unconnected to the rest of the global internet. The network includes state services, government-approved search engines and news sites, as well as bank accounts. The network provides access to the larger internet but, much like China's Great Firewall, controls the information that passes through the system. Iran has long banned individual services like Facebook and Twitter but has now developed a more robust system in which it can effectively separate domestic traffic from international traffic so that it can shut off one without affecting the other.
Iran launched the network's first of three phases in August 2016, rolling out access to e-government services and domestically generated content. The second phase was unveiled in February 2017 with the addition – among other services – of domestic high-definition video. Tehran began offering the third and final phase in July 2017. To sweeten the deal for Iranians, internet authorities boosted the bandwidth and connection speeds while also slashing the prices of internet bills.
As an additional means of controlling information, Tehran also has followed the lead of other countries in demanding that companies retain their data on Iranian soil. In May 2016, the SCC issued new guidelines requiring messaging services to transfer data linked to Iranians to domestic servers. Three months later, the council ordered all foreign social media companies to do likewise. Companies like Telegram have balked at the demands, declaring that it would not "comply with unreasonable local laws" while acknowledging that it has established some operations in the country. Iranian officials, in contrast, claimed that the messaging application had moved some of its servers into the country. Regardless, authorities quickly moved to close Telegram during the recent unrest, only unblocking it on Jan. 13.
Iran's attempts to create a more manageable intranet notwithstanding, the country remains powerless to hermetically seal its own web from a system that remains tied to the global internet. Users can still install virtual private networks to access certain content on the global internet that Iran seeks to block, such as YouTube. Additionally, because such sites are so crucial to business operations that their permanent closure would deal a catastrophic blow to the domestic economy, it is untenable for Iranian authorities to entirely sever access for an extended period unless there is a serious national emergency. The recent blocking of Telegram not only affected protesters but it also affected many businesses that rely on it for operations such as advertising – something that Rouhani admitted during the protests.
Though not a foolproof system, the National Information Network did permit Iranian officials to simultaneously shut down all international traffic entering the network and maintain regular domestic operations, thereby allowing citizens to access domestic bank accounts, government-approved media sites, government e-services and other services.
In the run-up to 2013 presidential elections, Rouhani campaigned partly on a promise to lift some of the constraints on Iran's media and access to information at large. Specifically regarding the internet, Rouhani promised to increase domestic internet speeds from a limit of a mere 128 kilobytes per second, improve Iran's 3G and 4G mobile networks, reduce the cost to access the internet and remove some content restrictions. The message resonated – and continues to do so – with Iran's young people who, like youth the world over, demand more access to such services.
But in a country where the state continues to seek ways to shape its citizens' viewpoints and control their access to information, the National Information Network has worked to pervert some of the promises of Rouhani's campaign by effectively co-opting them for its own ends. The network has allowed hard-line conservatives to push back against the call for greater freedoms by pointing to the ostensible openness and success of the new system. Iranians might now enjoy easier access to their bank statements and faster download times, but only as part of a nationwide network in which the state has demonstrated how astute it has become at controlling domestic cyberspace since the Green Movement first captured the world's attention. It seems that Rouhani's young, web-savvy voters might have to take the good along with the bad when it comes to the internet.