In 1989 the Chinese government had enough of the protesters occupying a huge square in the middle of its national capital, so they kicked out the foreign press, shut down communications and rolled in the tanks.
Well, they almost shut down communications…
In 2009 the Iranian government tried the same thing. It didn’t work any better.
Arbor Networks provides a good view on Iran’s connection to the Internet via the Internet Observatory. The fat healthy traffic to the left of the dropoff is what Iranian Internet traffic looks like at normal times, the cliff denotes the election and to the right of that you see traffic increasingly “leaking” past the imposed restrictions.
Why isn’t the Internet completely shutdown by the Iranian government? James Cowie at Renesys has a good summation:
The cynics. Perhaps the government has left the Internet intact so that they can use it to surveil and round up dissidents. Perhaps they even put bandwidth constraints in place to make it easier to cope with the volumes of traffic that need to be captured and filtered.
The optimists. Perhaps the government has realized that a modern economy relies on the Internet to such an extent that it cannot be turned off, for fear of disrupting financial transactions and business communications. Iran’s Internet ecosystem is relatively rich, and the impact on their economy of a sustained Internet shutdown would be significant. Why make it harder for companies to do business in Iran at a time when oil revenues are cratering and foreign investment is looking for reasons to take a walk?
The realists. Perhaps the government is too busy with other things to worry about the Internet. Governments aren’t well-suited to run the Internet, and they don’t completely understand how it works. The Internet has never been “turned off” before, and it would take creativity and thoughtful action to figure out who to ask in order to get it done. So it simply hasn’t happened, and probably won’t. Good thing, too, because they might not be able to turn it on again.
My view is that all of these are in play. Some handful of savvy folks in power are tracking down some protesters through traffic analysis, but I imagine the quantity of folks on both sides of this skirmish are small because of the Realist view that not many folks inside the gov’t have a clue how it works, and because tracking individuals through Internet usage is not a trivial effort. The Optimist view is likely also part of the reason, because as a basically modern country simply shutting off all Internet traffic is not only difficult technically but the gov’t is likely not sure what negative impacts it would have on business and isn’t eager to find out.
Someone asked me whether the Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks against Iranian gov’t web servers could have also slowed down traffic out of Iran and the short answer is “yes”. The longer answer is: “particularly with the currently diminished bandwidth”, as well as; “DDoSing feels good at first but it’s really not the best way to promote free speech”.
So, with all the resources of a major regional power at its disposal, the Iranian government is so far completely unable to silence its citizens. The methods that worked in 1979 – used by many of the same individuals who are now leaders in the Iranian government – do not work, anymore.
The small piece of video of a man in front of a line of tanks which escaped the Chinese Internet blockade twenty years ago certainly was the Transitional Form in this evolutionary chain. It’s descendants roam the world freely now.