The Challenges To Turning Off The Internet In Iran

Opposition groups in Iran have been using the Internet and social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook to protest the recent re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While the government has cracked down on dissent in the streets, it's having a harder time quieting electronic dissent.

Which raises the question: Why doesn't the Iranian government just turn off the Internet?

Answer: That's easier said than done.

If you wanted to try to control the Internet, you'd need access to a major gateway, a place like the 4545 Building at the University of Washington in Seattle. Down in the sub-basement, bundles of fiber optic cables connect the university's network to the outside world. Daniel Schwalbe, the university's senior security engineer, says those cables represent the university's main electronic hub. If the university wanted to censor students' access to the Internet, he says, this is where it would happen.

Not that it would be easy.

"It's next to impossible to do that reliably," Schwalbe says. "We can put some blocks in; we could block Facebook.com. And I would say that in less than a day they would have access to Facebook again because they would figure out a way around that."

The Way Around

For example, students could connect through proxies — friendly computers on the outside that relay the information. Still, the university would enjoy a kind of chokehold on the Internet. It could make things harder for students by constantly updating the list of blocked Web sites and by dipping into the flow of information coming through the building where Schwalbe works. Not that the University of Washington would want to do that. But the government of Iran does, and it has the means.

Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, says Iran — like a university campus — pipes the Internet into the country through a central, controlled gateway. That allows the government to block Web sites and do other kinds of filtering.

But, like resourceful American students in search of Facebook, many Iranians can get around blocks, using proxies and other methods. Complicating matters for the authorities, Zittrain says, is the fact that social networking services tend to be decentralized.

For instance, many people read Twitter posts without ever visiting Twitter.com, because they use the third-party services that have grown up around Twitter. "If the government blocks Twitter.com, the people using these alternatives don't even realize there's been a block," Zittrain says.

What The Government Can Do

The government can still gum up the works. Twitterers can be anonymous, which makes their information hard to authenticate. The opposition has warned of disinformation "tweets," presumably posted by government supporters.

The Iranian opposition also has fewer options in its cat-and-mouse game with the censors because U.S. sanctions have kept some American companies from offering services like instant messaging in Iran. Still, persistent Internet users usually find the information they want; the only sure way to block them is to pull the plug on the whole Internet.

And Danny O'Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation says he doubts the Iranian government wants to do that.

"It's like closing down an essential utility in order to control your populace," O'Brien says. "And that's not a decision you can take lightly."

These days, the Internet is so integrated into industry, government — life itself — that even in Iran, shutting it down is the political equivalent of going nuclear.

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