Amid widespread demonstrations over rising gasoline prices, Iranians began experiencing internet slowdowns over the last few days that became a near-total internet and mobile data blackout on Saturday. The government is apparently seeing to silence protestors and quell unrest. So how does a country like Iran switch off internet to a population of more than 80 million? It’s not an easy thing to do.
Though some countries, namely China, architected their internet infrastructure from the start with government control in mind, most don’t have a central set of levers they can pull to influence country-wide access to content or connectivity. But regimes around the world, including those in Russia and Iran, have increasingly been retrofitting traditional private and decentralized networks with cooperation agreements, technical implants, or a combination to give officials more influence. In countries like Ethiopia, Venezuela, and Iraq, along with disputed regions like Kashmir, government-led social media blocking and more extensive outages have become the norm.
“This is the most wide-scale internet shutdown that we’ve seen in Iran,” says Adrian Shahbaz, research director at the pro-democracy group Freedom House, which tracks internet censorship and restriction worldwide. “It’s surprising to see the Iranian authorities block all internet connections rather than only international internet connections, because the latter is a tactic that they’ve used in the past. It could mean they are more fearful of their own people and worry that they cannot control the information space amidst these economic protests.”
The process to block an entire country’s internet connectivity depends on the set-up. Places like Ethiopia that have relatively limited internet proliferation typically have just one government-controlled internet service provider, perhaps alongside some smaller private ISPs. But all usually gain access from a single undersea cable or international network node, creating “upstream” choke points that officials can use to essentially block a country’s connectivity at its source.