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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Iranian Internet Connectivity: The Gift You Can't Give Back (and Open Thread)

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.


89 comments

  1. Our military already has it in operation. Now we just need to get it small enough to fit into laptops instead of bulky external devices. It’s only a matter of time before it happens. We’ve got the capability with cell phones now, we just need to extend it to use a satellite instead of a cell tower.

  2. sricki

    Technology has grown to the point that it can’t be fully restricted or limited, even with the full resources of a government’s, well, technology. Heh. Ironic in a way. The extremity of the actions required to fully shut of communications between separate technologically savvy countries these days would be incredible, and the full repercussions unknown. So the dissemination of information is maintained as worldwide communication continues despite the efforts of the Iranian government. Rock on.

    By the way, Chris, should we use this as a place to comment on the diary as well as another open thread? The open threads keep filling up because there’s so much new information and so many updates. If people continue to comment in the last one, I (or whomever) will start a new open thread in the recent diaries list so that this can stay at the top of the FP. Good to have a diary with analysis at the top for a while.

  3. Shaun Appleby

    An interesting development:


    From source: “I have now received e-mails from totally trustworthy sources within Iran that many Sepaah commanders [Sepaph is IRGC] have been arrested, because they are opposed to what is going on and in particular to the plan for tomorrow.

    “This had been talked about for the past few days, but my source confirmed it.” end quote

    Clarification for plans for tomorrow: “Apparently, the plan is to create chaos and bloody confrontation between Basij and Karroubi and Mousavi demonstrators, in order to justify hard crack down and have Khamenei announce the end of “soft” confrontation in the Friday prayers.”

    Iran updates http://www.tehranbureau.com 18 Jun 09

    At some point the regime must act, one way or another, in response to the waves of public protest.  And the security establishment must be tested.  So far the regime has used the basij who now appear unable to cope with the size and momentum of these rallies.  It seems this crisis is headed for a climax of some kind.  Our prayers are with our brothers and sisters in the streets of Iran.

    When the army faltered in 1979 the revolution soon triumphed.

  4. Shaun Appleby

    Another filing from Robert Fisk:


    “President” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – and the quotation marks are becoming ever more appropriate in Iran today – is in real trouble. There are now three separate official inquiries into his supposed election victory and the violence which followed, while conservative Iranian MPs fought each other with their fists at a private meeting behind the assembly chamber, after Ahmadinejad’s members objected to an official’s reference to the “dignity” with which the opposition leader, Mirhossein Mousavi, answered parliamentary questions. Those close to the man who still believes he is the President of Iran say that he is himself deeply troubled – even traumatised – by the massive demonstrations against him across the country.

    Robert Fisk – The dead of Iran are mourned – but the fight goes on Independent 19 Jun 09

    But the battle lines may be drawn at today’s Friday prayers:


    The opposition suspects that Khamenei will try to restore order by telling Mousavi and his people that they have been allowed their massive demonstrations and that, despite “unfortunate incidents” – that wonderful autocratic clich√© has actually just been used by parliament Speaker Ali Larijani – this was a generous and democratic act by the government. But, Khamenei is expected to say, enough is enough. Any groups disturbing the peace this weekend will be regarded as counter-revolutionaries and dealt with “according to the law” (a favourite Khamenei expression).

    If so, Mousavi and his advisers – they include former president Mohammad Khatami as well as Mousavi’s election ally, Mehdi Karroubi – will have to behave with immense sensitivity if they are not to be trapped into silence by such a warning. Their problem is almost intractable. If they continue the protest marches, they can be accused of breaking the law – and the waning strength of the marches no longer brings the people of Tehran on to their balconies and rooftops – but if they bring the protests to an end, the Basiji and the cops become kings of the street.

    Robert Fisk – The dead of Iran are mourned – but the fight goes on Independent 19 Jun 09

    The regime must be concerned that time is not on their side and the legitimacy of their leadership erodes with each passing day.  We await the Friday prayers with more than usual anticipation.

  5. Elch

    The current situation in Iran reminds me of 1989 when the Berlin wall was teared down – an uncontrolled chain reaction which fortunately didn’t lead to WW3. Even though there was no internet and not even phone lines, the access to mass information via TV and radio was a key part of making this peaceful revolution happen.

    Wind of change!

  6. HappyinVT

    I have been given the ¬≠responsibility of telling the world what is happening in Iran. The office of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who the Iranian people truly want as their leader, has asked me to do so. They have asked me to tell how Mousavi’s headquarters was wrecked by plainclothes police officers. To tell how the commanders of the revolutionary guard ordered him to stay silent. To urge people to take to the streets because Mousavi could not do so directly.

    The people in the streets don’t want a recount of last week’s vote. They want it annulled. This is a crucial moment in our history. Since the 1979 revolution Iran has had 80% dictatorship and 20% democracy. We have dictatorship because one person is in charge, the supreme leader – first Khomeini, now Khamenei. He controls the army and the clergy, the justice system and the media, as well as our oil money.

    snip

    So why do the Iranian people not want Ahmadinejad as their leader? Because he is nothing but a loudspeaker for Khamenei. Under Ahmadinejad, economic problems have grown worse, despite $280bn of oil revenue. Social and literary freedom is much more restricted than under his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. The world views us as a terrorist nation on the lookout for war. When Khatami was president of Iran, Bush was president of the US. Now the Americans have Obama and we have our version of Bush. We need an Obama who can find solutions for Iran’s problems. Although power would remain in the hands of Khamenei, a president like Mousavi could weaken the supreme leader.

    snip

    People say that Mousavi won’t change anything as he is part of the establishment. That is correct to a degree because they wouldn’t let anyone who is not in their circle rise to seniority. But not all members of a family are alike, and for Mousavi it is useful to understand how he has changed over time.

    snip

    Previously, he was revolutionary, because everyone inside the system was a revolutionary. But now he’s a reformer. Now he knows Gandhi – before he knew only Che Guevara. If we gain power through aggression we would have to keep it through aggression. That is why we’re having a green revolution, defined by peace and democracy.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/comm

  7. This pretty much speaks for itself.

    Ron Paul Is Sole Dissenter From Resolution Supporting Iranian Protests

    By Eric Kleefeld – June 19, 2009, 1:53PM

    The House voted 405-1 today for a resolution in support of the Iranian dissidents and condemning the ruling government. And the one man who opposed it was…Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX).

    Paul said in his floor speech that he was in “reluctant opposition” to the resolution — that he of course condemns violence by governments against their citizens. On the other hand, he also doesn’t think the American government should act as a judge of every country overseas, and pointed out that we don’t condemn countries like Saudi Arabia or Egypt that don’t even have real elections.

    “It seems our criticism is selective and applied when there are political points to be made,” Paul said. “I have admired President Obama’s cautious approach to the situation in Iran and I would have preferred that we in the House had acted similarly.”

    Ron Paul’s statement:

    I rise in reluctant opposition to H Res 560, which condemns the Iranian government for its recent actions during the unrest in that country. While I never condone violence, much less the violence that governments are only too willing to mete out to their own citizens, I am always very cautious about “condemning” the actions of governments overseas. As an elected member of the United States House of Representatives, I have always questioned our constitutional authority to sit in judgment of the actions of foreign governments of which we are not representatives. I have always hesitated when my colleagues rush to pronounce final judgment on events thousands of miles away about which we know very little. And we know very little beyond limited press reports about what is happening in Iran.

    Of course I do not support attempts by foreign governments to suppress the democratic aspirations of their people, but when is the last time we condemned Saudi Arabia or Egypt or the many other countries where unlike in Iran there is no opportunity to exercise any substantial vote on political leadership? It seems our criticism is selective and applied when there are political points to be made. I have admired President Obama’s cautious approach to the situation in Iran and I would have preferred that we in the House had acted similarly.

    I adhere to the foreign policy of our Founders, who advised that we not interfere in the internal affairs of countries overseas. I believe that is the best policy for the United States, for our national security and for our prosperity. I urge my colleagues to reject this and all similar meddling resolutions.

  8. fogiv

    …but I found it heartening (emphasis mine):

    4:10 PM ET — A letter from Tehran. An Iranian-American friend translates a letter from a 30-year-old female architect in Iran, written yesterday.

    The events of the last couple of days have been so moving that I haven’t be able to digest it all yet. Life was already fast and hectic enough in Tehran where we wouldn’t have time to get to everything, now after 3 PM everything comes to a halt and based on a collective agreement, we all leave our houses or daily routines and head towards downtown without any transportation! Believe me that every day we leave the house, we are not sure if we will make it back. Some of us like me and my family and our close friends who are among the crowd every day worry even more and each night after the rally we keep calling each other to make sure everyone is back home safe and sound. During the rallies we see such variety of bitter and sweet incidents that it gives us material to think about for months to come. We come across small kids, men and women over 75 years old, people from all walks of life.

    Today I saw a blind young man accompanied by his father, many people with broken limbs, blued eyes, and many who carry the pictures of those killed in the events which breaks your heart.

    Many people distribute drinks and refreshments to protestors, some wave hands from the windows of their houses showing their green ribbons, and all of this, in an unbelievable moving silence.

    Remember when in middle school as a composition homework, we had to write about “Imagine you could see the seed of people’s hearts.” Today these green ribbons have become those seeds. When you see them you get energized, and feel that you are all one. Cheating these people is worse than any crime and it is such a loss to waste all this hope and energy. I hope we make something good out of it.

    I have to add that what you and other Iranians outside of Iran are doing to support us is really warming our hearts. We are sure what you are doing is very effective. When they ask all foreign reporters to leave the country and when all of the communication channels are disconnected, it is your voice that takes our voice to the outside world.

    Many criticize us and wonder what does Mr. Mousavi have that is so special? They argue that after all he is one of the many in that corrupt system of the Islamic Republic and will never act against it. My argument is that this is not about Mousavi, but about people realizing that they are not followers like a herd of sheep that goes anywhere it is summoned to go. They will know that the individual will does matter and that their actions can be effective and can speak louder than any specific person; this to me is the most important aspect of these events. Now either Mousavi or anyone else who will end up in power, they will have the understanding of what people want and what they are capable of, and how they can voice their requests. This is the significant and important step and now that Mousavi has chosen to go ahead, we will support him.

    I had so much to tell! It is so good talk to each other.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/

  9. Shaun Appleby

    Well worth a read, past interviews with colleagues on Ahmadinejad’s long and intimate relationship with the basij:


    Araby pointed to a beige windbreaker that was hanging on a hook on the closed door of the room. I remarked that it appeared to be exactly like the jacket the president usually wore. He smiled proudly and said it was his. “It is the jacket of the Basij.” he said.

    Jon Lee Anderson – Understanding the Basij New Yorker 19 Jun 09

    Who’d have thunk?

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