Why Iran's Internet Shutdown is a Stark Warning For Russia
By Zak Doffman
With escalating public protests over steep fuel price rises, Iran shut down its internet over the weekend to prevent images and videos leaking to the outside world, and to frustrate attempts by protesters to organise themselves. The move, which was described by NetBlocks as “one of the most complex ever tracked” and took a full 24 hours to put into effect, started on November 15. By the following evening “Iran’s largest mobile network operators including MCI, Rightel and IranCell subsequently fell offline.” A day later, internet connectivity was down at around 5%, with only the authorities and a few of the official news outlets maintaining connectivity.
Even for a country as restricted as Iran, with material limitations on the information accessible from inside its borders, this is extreme, “the most severe recorded in Iran since President Rouhani came to power, and the most severe disconnection tracked by NetBlocks in any country in terms of its technical complexity and breadth.” As reported by AFP, the Supreme National Security Council took the decision and used the ISNA news agency to indicate the shut down was only intended to last a day. While some reports continue to leak onto social media, the news flow has been stemmed.
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As localised as the situation in Iran might seem, it is part of an increasing trend by authoritarian regimes to control public access to information and the outside world. Where once this seemed the preserve of China given its firewalled internet structure, technical advances have enabled clampdowns in places as diverse as Kashmir and Moscow. A recent Freedom on the Net report claimed that automated monitoring of citizens access to information and use of social media has now become endemic, impacting a full 90% of internet users around the world.
But the situation in Iran should serve as a particularly acute warning to Russia given the timing. At the beginning of this month, President Vladimir Putin secured his own internet shut down capability, the so-called sovereign internet that enables his government to disconnect the country from the rest of the world, transferring to a domestic-only network and severing links to non-Russian websites and services. The deployment of this so-called RuNet was signed into law in May and deployment of the technology within the country’s internet access points began in October. As of now, the country’s connectivity authorities are testing the effectiveness of this “kill switch.”
The public justification for this new capability is to defend Russia in the event of “threats to the stability, security and integrity of the functioning of the internet and the public communications network,” in other words a cyberattack by the the U.S., its allies or its proxies. But critics have denounced the regressive step for its isolationist and censorship risk, arguing that it introduces a Chinese-style firewall to both disconnect Russia from the world and also systemise the use of deep packet inspection to monitor the day-to-day usage of the internet by citizens. Freedom On The Net has warned that Russian internet freedom has now declined “for the sixth year in a row—restricting online anonymity and increasing censorship.”
In August, the Russian authorities used a targeted internet shutdown to hamper its own protesters who were gathering to denounce elements of Putin’s rule. Moscow’s three main mobile network operators—MTS, MegaFon and VimpelCom—shut down their mobile internets, explaining this was caused by “overcrowding,” but according to BBC Russia, it was at the request of the city’s authorities. The networks were told to inform customers “there were no difficulties in providing services.”
And so for anyone assuming the new internet kill switch would never be used by Putin to stem national level protests or escalating political dissent, they should maybe think again. In truth, the lesson from Iran plays into Russia’s hands: The complexity of an actual shutdown is lessened when a switch is built into the system. Which in fact comes with a twist: As much as these latest events should serve as a warning to Russia’s 150 million citizens, one can also assume that Teheran will be looking at making the job of effecting such a shutdown easier next time around. And they only need to look as far as Moscow for advice and assistance in that regard.