Iran has built an internet for oppression. Here’s why you should care.

Iranians may soon lose their capacity to access global internet services just when they need it most: during protests when security forces violently crack down on demonstrators, and they need to broadcast the events to help their fellow citizens and alert the international media and human rights organizations. They could also see their every move tracked by the Iranian government, as their only option will be to use regime-friendly digital services. That is because Iran has been building an internet for oppression: a local “intranet” that makes internet shutdowns easier, and enables fine-tuned  control and surveillance of online communications, the National Information Network, or NIN. Unless Iran changes course, the “success” of this network could not only lead to more brutality and human rights abuses perpetrated against Iranians, it could also be replicated by other authoritarian regimes.  

In November, Iran marked the grim anniversary of the 2019Bloody November” protests, when Iranians got a first taste of the regime’s new digital repression capabilities. The government responded to the 2019 protests with extreme violence, while implementing an internet shutdown of a breadth and depth that was entirely unprecedented. For the first time, Iran successfully implemented and sustained an almost complete interruption of access to outside networks and services, while maintaining selected services available from within the country. 

The authorities had imposed smaller-scale shutdowns for a number of years.  As ARTICLE 19 details in its excellent report,  Iran: Tightening the Net 2020, the government made key changes in internet governance and infrastructure in the aftermath of the Green Movement protests of 2009. Over the span of ten years, Iran has built a comprehensive legislative framework, complex bureaucracy, and a vast intranet within the country, creating an internet for oppression that is independent of the global network. 

In this post, we share some of the findings from ARTICLE 19’s report to explore how Iran’s novel intranet has developed and what it means for the human rights of Iranians, the global #KeepItOn movement to end internet shutdowns, and the future of a free, open, and secure global internet. We encourage everyone who cares about these issues to read the full report.

How internet shutdowns evolved from 2009 to 2019 

What a difference ten years make. 

In 2009, Iranians took to the street in protest after authorities announced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the sitting president, had won reelection against a reformist opposition candidate, amid claims of electoral fraud. When authorities cracked down on the protests, activists and journalists used their mobile phones to document and share incidents of flagrant human rights violations — notably on Twitter — making headlines across the globe. The government then ordered the first countrywide internet shutdown. It lasted a day, but some activists were still able to communicate online, getting access through smaller telcos to circumvent the block.

Fast forward to 2019. Iran has just experienced the largest protests in the country since 1979, culminating in violent crackdowns against protesters, journalists, and human rights defenders and a blanket internet shutdown. ARTICLE 19 reports that from November 16- 27, this shutdown cut access to a mere 4-7% connectivity, except for pockets of connectivity provided through a few universities and research institutions. The government restored most mobile connectivity by the 27th, but terrifying events had already taken place. Amnesty International’s investigation, A web of impunity: The killing Iran’s internet shutdown hid, reveals that security forces killed at least 304 people during five days of protest, while the internet blackout prevented news of the atrocities from getting out.

Building blocks for an internet for oppression: how the National Information Network works

So how did we get here? As ARTICLE 19 reports, after the 2009 protests, Iran developed comprehensive legislation and an opaque and complex bureaucracy for deciding and enforcing internet policies. On the technical side, it implemented increasingly sophisticated website filtering, internet throttling, and blocking of social media platforms such as Telegram, which is among the most popular messaging applications in Iran.

In the past ten years, the regime has also invested in the development of the afore-mentioned National Informational Network, a sovereign internet infrastructure for Iran that can operate independently from the global internet. To be precise, the NIN works like a private network that reproduces essential elements of a global internet infrastructure domestically and enables services hosted there to remain reachable from within the network while disconnected from the global internet. Development of the NIN accelerated in 2013 after former U.S. national security contractor Edward Snowden came forward with  revelations of mass surveillance, and China began to assist Iran in building a separate “halal internet.”

Iranian authorities offered both security and economic reasons for developing the NIN. They claimed that it would reduce economic and geopolitical dependency on U.S. firms, by fostering the development of local applications, consequently preventing the U.S. government from cutting internet services to Iranians, as well as providing better protection against cyberattacks, such as those which targeted their state oil terminals and the Iranian nuclear program. Iranian leaders not only subsidized the infrastructure development but also openly advertised it by offering incentives, such as cheaper and faster connections, for users and content providers.

What the National Information Network does: enhance capacity for information surveillance and censorship

Regardless of claims that the NIN benefits Iranians, it is likely to bolster Iran’s repressive capacity, as ARTICLE 19 explains. At a minimum, it has the potential to: 

  • Enhance state surveillance capacity by forcing people to migrate to domestic internet services, particularly during internet shutdowns;
  • Force, or at least induce, those providing local applications — and perhaps international apps that are compliant  —  to transfer hosting of their services to the NIN in an attempt to anticipate and avoid the business costs of future shutdowns, while also reinforcing the regime’s surveillance and censorship capacities; and
  • Increase the likelihood and effectiveness of internet shutdowns, which could in turn interfere with communicating during  protests.

The implementation of the NIN comes with a state policy of ordering internet shutdowns in response to protests. It openly aims at persuading people who are trying to use  blocked services, such as Telegram, to migrate to local “substitutes,” once circumvention tools become virtually unusable. Those offering local applications may be more willing or vulnerable to government pressure to spy on people and hand over their sensitive data to law enforcement agencies. 

Blanket internet shutdowns — where internet access is cut entirely across a geographic area — usually incur extraordinary economic costs. These costs are higher when there are more people using the internet and the digital economy is more valuable — both for the business sector and the regime. Not all businesses bear these costs in the same way, as dependence on internet services varies across sectors and can depend on the size of a business. Regimes can make shutdowns more tolerable from their perspective by diminishing the associated costs of disruption. But they can also do so for some businesses, since if these businesses switch to domestic hosting services, they can become less reliant on global internet services that may be frequently disconnected. This migration would widen Iran’s infrastructure for surveillance and censorship. Unfortunately, as ARTICLE 19 points out, U.S. trade sanctions can serve to reinforce this migration and isolation.

In short, what makes the NIN and other initiatives like it so dangerous is that, from the perspective of an authoritarian regime, it could reduce the political and economic costs of cutting off access to the internet while maintaining domestic connections to selected sites and services. While imposing a complete shutdown can block Iranians’ capacity to organize protests and communicate, it also limits the capacity of Iranian authorities to respond, hampering their internal communications and intelligence gathering. This is one reason why governments that anticipate imposing repeated shutdowns may seek to segment internet infrastructure to separate and block access to some services but not others, such as banks, payment systems, and security agencies. Indeed, as ARTICLE 19 highlights, some of these services have already migrated to the NIN. What is worse is that once shutdowns become less “costly,” governments may order them more frequently. Citizens threatened by these shutdowns may ultimately self-censor, understanding that they can more easily be silenced.

What we can do to help Iranians 

International pressure and solidarity remains crucial to stop internet shutdowns and the atrocities they hide. We must keep increasing the political cost of any and all shutdowns, regardless of the official justification, and no matter which government is responsible. But there are other things that ARTICLE 19 and others recommend to prevent human rights abuses taking place in the dark in Iran. Among these recommendations:

  • Iran’s government must commit to stop shutting down access to the global internet, and provide transparency and accountability regarding its previous shutdown orders.
  • The Internet Telecommunication Union should condemn internet shutdowns, which violate internationally recognized human rights.
  • The U.S. must consider the impact of its trade sanctions on Iranians and make adjustments, a topic that we will address in an upcoming blog post.

What is happening now in Iran should serve as a warning to the world. If we do not want governments to write a new chapter in the authoritarian playbook called Building an internet for oppression, we must keep working together to realize the vision of connecting everyone, everywhere to a free, open, and secure internet — and  #KeepItOn.