Minutes after protests broke out in over 100 cities across Iran on Friday, following a 50 percent hike in fuel prices, officials at the state-run Telecommunication Company of Iran (TIC) put in motion a plan to suffocate the demonstrations, cutting off the oxygen that now fuels most protest movements across the world: the internet.
Within 24 hours of the start of the protests, access to the internet had been virtually eradicated, and citizens were prevented from organizing protests, sharing messages, and uploading videos to show the world what was happening.
In the hours before the blanket internet shutdown came into effect, videos showed protests turning violent as security forces moved quickly to quell dissent on the streets of Iran’s cities.
But since Saturday evening, virtually no information — about how the protests have evolved or how the security forces have responded — has come out of Iran.
And experts say that creating this kind of information vacuum was always part of the plan.
“In every round of domestic unrest, they have experienced over the last decade, the Iranian government has done some evaluation of their strategies and their responsiveness and they have learned lessons” Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House, told VICE News.
“What we are seeing today is that they were prepared for these protests because we immediately saw the presence of law enforcement on Iranian streets, and the internet blackout was a signal that they were ready.”
Iran has been working to cut itself off from the global internet for more than a decade, by building a sovereign internet that would give Tehran complete control over the online space. Now, one expert who is tracking Iran’s internet blackout closely says the current crisis presents the perfect opportunity to test out this system
“It is entirely possible that internally, services have been switched on,” Alp Toker, the director of digital rights advocacy group Netblocks, told VICE News. “We have heard reports of limited services like banking being enabled but that won't reflect externally. What you are seeing is that the internet is being replaced with a national intranet.”
Toker says that the limited reports he is getting from sources inside Iran suggest the intranet may have been switched on before it was ready and authorities are now scrambling to enable local services one-by-one.
The idea of creating a sovereign internet is something that authoritarian regimes like Russia and Iran are embracing, seemingly inspired by the iron grip China holds over its online space.
Tehran has been building its "National information network" or SHOMA for at least a decade; the effort is spearheaded by the former government officials who control the Telecommunication Company of Iran.
A decade ago, in a bid to silence protests around the 2009 presidential elections, Iran used bandwidth throttling, which left the country’s internet online, but painfully slow. It did something similar in 2011 when faced with another wave of nationwide protests, and for every instance of political unrest since, the government has used the opportunity to hone its ability to choke online communication.
During the protests that broke out in late 2017 and continued into 2018, the blackouts came in a rolling wave that began by blocking specific services like Instagram and Telegram, before imposing a near-total blackout. That this blackout is so total demonstrates the government’s growing capacity to quickly control the sharing of information online.
“This is a significant shift, they are much more sophisticated in trying to manage the protests because they saw how important the internet was in spreading messages, and the convening power of social media in the 2017 protests,” Vakil said.
The current blackout is not only a new standard for Iran, it is also one of the most sophisticated internet censorship efforts by any government anywhere in the world.
And the latest update from Netblocks on Tuesday morning shows that rather than coming back online, Iran’s connectivity to the outside world is continuing to drop.
Iran is not the only country that is aiming to cut itself off from the global internet. Russia has also been developing its own sovereign internet, known as Runet, which the Kremlin says is designed to protect Russia in the event of a cyberattack from the U.S. or another western power.
“In a sense the two countries, while they are on good terms and they share technology, they are also friendly rivals and there has been a bit of a technology race to see who could get there first,” Toker said.
The small percentage of connectivity to the outside world from Iran has been reserved for government officials, state-run media and some universities. The result is that the outside world has to rely on government statements for information about the protests.
“Today the situation was calmer — more than 80 percent compared to yesterday,” the government spokesman said according to AP. “Only some minor problems remain, and by tomorrow and the day after, there will remain no special riots.”
But the fact global internet access is dropping rather than increasing suggests otherwise.
“The longer the internet is off, the message is that the protests are not contained and the government is indeed in a crisis period,” Vakil said. “The faster they can restore the internet would suggest they have control over this situation.”
Cover: This photo released by the Iranian Students' News Agency, ISNA, shows a gas station that was burned during protests that followed authorities' decision to raise gasoline prices, in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019. (Abdolvahed Mirzazadeh/ISNA via AP)