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David Talbot

A View from David Talbot

Why Iran May Never Create a "Closed Internet"

Iran could certainly cut off its global Internet connections. But whether it ever would is a question of politics and economics.

  • April 10, 2012

Will Iran be shutting down global Internet connections by August–as has been widely reported in recent days–and create a “clean Internet” that only dishes up government-controlled content and government-run email?   

There are indications these reports are based on a hoax, or at best reflect some misunderstanding of what was reported by internal news services in Iran. Either way, the Iranian regime is clearly a leading Internet repressor, made even more paranoid by events in Egypt and Tunisia. So the reports raise the question of whether such a draconian move is actually possible. 

At the level of technology only, the answer is “yes.” I asked Hal Roberts, a leading investigator of national censorship programs, how this might work, and he replied:

“…It would be technically easy for the Iranian government to shut down the connections between its national network and the rest of the Internet for as long as it likes. In that case, existing circumvention tools would be of no use, so they function by hiding traffic to filtered sites within those Internet connections. There are some options to allow very limited network access in this case, such as mesh networks connected to satellite or cross border cell towers, but in the best cases those solutions are only capable of serving a tiny bit of bandwidth to a tiny portion of the current Iranian Internet population (enough maybe to allow leaking of dissident stories, photos, and video or very bare bones local social media services, but nothing like the current Internet).”

But as China has come to realize (see our feature on the Chinese way of Internet control), their economy has come to depend on the Internet.  Business, not just dissidents, need the global connections.  And this is true in Iran, too, sanctions notwithstanding. So as Roberts put it: “The much more interesting, important, and difficult question is whether shutting its citizens off from the rest of the Internet for an extended period would be socially, economically, and politically feasible for the Iranian government.”

Many observers have said the Internet is at increasing risk of devolving, to some extent, in the direction of controlled national Intranets and product-centric networks. The hope is that a globally-connected Internet has shown enough of its value, even to the Iranian regime, that it is no longer possible to simply cut it off. 

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