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Iran and the Internet: Uneasy Standoff

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We’ve received enough interest about our previous notes on Iranian Internet connectivity that I wanted to give a brief update, and some reflections.

In short: Iran is still on the Internet. As the crisis deepens, people are literally risking their lives by continuing to use the Internet for coordination and communication. Iran’s physical connectivity to the Internet is so centralized, and so fragile, that it’s within the power of the government to simply “turn it off” if they so desired. And yet, they have not done so.

Except for a brief period of outage over the weekend, the routes into Iran from the rest of the world have been basically intact, if a bit congested and unstable. Most of that congestion and instability is probably the result of six billion people who are freshly interested in Iranian politics, all reading (and in some cases, yes, attacking) Iranian websites. We aren’t making things easier for the people inside Iran, who need that same bandwidth to get out their images and observations and tweets.

To show that nothing much has changed structurally, consider the fact that the same lineup of six international carriers are still carrying the megabits back and forth to the government’s monopoly points-of-presence at the Iranian border. (See the following chart, which shows how the relative percentages of routes to Iranian networks carried by those providers has changed over the last few days.)

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What happens inside Iran to those bits is anyone’s guess (censorship, site blocking, traffic interception, and harassment, from all accounts). But the pipes are open and the traffic is flowing. In a few cases (which I will not detail, for obvious reasons), there are actually direct paths to international carriers, in defiance of government monopoly, that are now getting good use.

I’ve talked to a lot of people in the last few days about this puzzle. In a crisis that verges on revolution, the first thing a government typically does is take control of the media that can be controlled, and shut down the media that cannot.

Why is it different this time? There seem to be three basic theories.

  • The cynics. Perhaps the government has left the Internet intact so that they can use it to surveil and round up dissidents. Perhaps they even put bandwidth constraints in place to make it easier to cope with the volumes of traffic that need to be captured and filtered.
  • The optimists. Perhaps the government has realized that a modern economy relies on the Internet to such an extent that it cannot be turned off, for fear of disrupting financial transactions and business communications. Iran’s Internet ecosystem is relatively rich, and the impact on their economy of a sustained Internet shutdown would be significant. Why make it harder for companies to do business in Iran at a time when oil revenues are cratering and foreign investment is looking for reasons to take a walk?
  • The realists. Perhaps the government is too busy with other things to worry about the Internet. Governments aren’t well-suited to run the Internet, and they don’t completely understand how it works. The Internet has never been “turned off” before, and it would take creativity and thoughtful action to figure out who to ask in order to get it done. So it simply hasn’t happened, and probably won’t. Good thing, too, because they might not be able to turn it on again.

You can pick the theory you like. I guess I’m a realist, but I’d like to be an optimist. If you wait long enough, something good can come out of something bad. If fertility rates hadn’t tripled during the long Iran-Iraq war in the 80s, Iran wouldn’t be faced with this demographic bulge of restless 20-somethings who have grown up with the Internet and expect it to keep working.

You can fight people, but you can’t fight human nature, and you can’t fight demographics. Iran is going to follow the same long-term trend as the rest of the developing world: building a civil society based on free expression, global communication, free mobility of human capital, and cross-border investment. That’s what the Internet symbolizes, and yes, if you ask these folks, it’s worth fighting for.


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