Iran had a blunt solution this weekend to an eruption of protests by angry citizens: Turn off the internet. All of it.
Web shutdowns have become a common strategy for repressive governments eager to disrupt civilians’ ability to act on and to amplify their discontent, but experts say this weekend’s response to widespread demonstrations over a spike in gasoline prices is the biggest yet. It took officials 24 hours to achieve their aim, but once they did, only 5% of regular users — including top politicians such as the supreme leader — were still online. Those who were cut off were unable to communicate not only beyond Iran’s borders, but also within them.
Iran’s move is notable as much for its complexity as for its breadth. Many developing nations whose leaders have hit the switch recently have had to do just that: Hit the switch, and only one, because the country connects through a single, state-sponsored service provider. The internet in Iran, by contrast, is more diverse and more democratic. The government didn’t purchase it off the shelf for an all-in-one installation, but instead private contractors built it bit by bit. That meant that taking it away required hitting multiple switches, or sending multiple orders to multiple parties.
The threat going forward is that the nations that remain mostly unwired will create networks that are, as Alp Toker of watchdog organization Netblocks puts it, “disruptable by design” — much like China’s carefully constructed Great Firewall. These nations, mostly in Africa and Latin America, are already at the center of a battle over whether the web will remain worldwide at all, or whether countries will maintain sovereign internets with tight government control over what information is permitted to circulate inside their territory and what is allowed out.
A law laying the foundation for this vision of control took effect in Russia this month, allowing the government to block traffic from abroad “in an emergency” and imposing requirements on service providers that would make it easier to impose exactly the sort of shutdown Iran achieved this weekend — except, perhaps, without the 24-hour slog. Russia also led a United Nations resolution whose end goal is a treaty that could expand the definition of cybercrime so broadly, and give governments so much leeway to prevent supposed incursions, that all sorts of ordinary uses of the internet could end up prohibited.
Russia, China and their allies want the same thing Iran wanted over the weekend: To shut up and shut in their citizens. They want to redirect the international community away from its long-standing focus on freedom on the internet, and they want to do it by casting the web as a dark place full of dangers — even as they are often the ones doing the attacking. Those countries that still believe the internet has light to offer can’t afford to let the worst offenders lead the way to extinguishing it.
© 2019, The Washington Post.