The Prospects of Internet Freedom in Iran and its “Chinafication”
In recent months, the so-called “Sianat” plan (Cyberspace Protection Bill), which has been described as further restricting internet freedom in Iran, has become controversial. Censorship and restriction of the internet, and even its shutdown during popular protests against the government in recent years, have also raised concerns about the Islamic Republic of Iran’s plans to build a “national internet.” Previously, some officials of the Islamic Republic have said that the Chinese model of the internet should be the basis for building the Iranian model.
Zamaneh spoke to Marcel Oomens, a Zamaneh colleague and censorship mitigation expert with a history of living and working in China, to discuss the matter further.
Zamaneh: You have followed the discussions about the so-called “national internet” in Iran. Many have compared it to the Chinese internet model about which you have also extensively researched. Can you first tell us a little bit about how this so-called Chinese internet works and functions? What are its characteristics and differences from, let’s say, internet access in the Netherlands?
Marcel Oomens: I must start by saying that I’m not an expert on “internet topology” and the physical dimension of the internet (see OSI model); my expertise is mostly at the “application layer.” Having said that, China was a relative latecomer to the internet. The first experiments with international internet traffic into and out of China were as late as 1989, and not until the late 2000s and early 2010s did (mobile) internet access become ubiquitous in China.
The first experiments were centrally administered “goodwill” projects with government involvement. This resulted in internet infrastructure in China that is very centralized: all (international) traffic flows through a limited number of international gateways. What is more, telecommunications providers are exclusively state-owned enterprises, bringing all telecommunications effectively under government control.
With most Chinese people late to the internet game, the vast majority of Chinese internet users were never on Facebook, but have only ever known local, Chinese alternatives to international social media. Facebook was permanently banned from China shortly after the August 2009 Urumqi riots. To this day, only around 4% of internet users in China have a Facebook account.
The implications of all this are profound: access to “international” websites and social media platforms is both difficult (the government squeezes bandwidth, international websites are censored or slow compared to local alternatives) and undesirable: all your friends and acquaintances are on fast, user-friendly and innovative local platforms that can compete with international alternatives (and have a strong competitive advantage inside of China).
This is true for every kind of service you can think of: social media (WeChat, Weibo), payment (WeChat wallet, AliPay), marketplaces (Taobao, T-Mall), video-on-demand, music, documents, ridesharing, the list goes on and on. Technologically the platforms are as good as international competitors and their content is much better tailored to a national (Chinese) audience.
Most people in China have no immediate need for an ‘international’ internet. This is very different in the Netherlands, where most users rely almost exclusively on international, often American providers of (social media) platforms (WhatsApp, Instagram), video (YouTube, Netflix), et cetera.
Considering the Iranian attempt to create native applications and software like messaging apps or email platforms or VPNs, could they become as successful as China in controlling the internet? And, in actuality, how successful is China in this manner?
-: I would hazard a guess that less than 5%, possibly even less than 1%, of Chinese internet users ever even attempt to access non-Chinese internet services. The Great Firewall of China is a nuisance to expats and people that have studied overseas, but a far bigger barrier to most Chinese people is the language. All the best Chinese-language content originates from China or is hosted inside the borders of the Great Firewall.
In my understanding this is very different for Iran. Iranians have been accustomed to ubiquitous access to international platforms and services, including YouTube, Facebook and, most recently, Instagram. The Iranian government may attempt to create a Chinese-style, national internet, but the starting situation is very different than it was in China. The government faces an uphill battle to convince users that local platforms are as good or better than international alternatives.
But that isn’t to say it can’t be done. Iranian platforms will evolve to become as good as international alternatives and the government can “hurt” international platforms and make them worse by slowing them down significantly. Most users prefer a national, censored platform that loads on their phone in one second, to an international, uncensored platform that takes five seconds to load. Users will “vote” with their feet: when friends and acquaintances are on local messaging apps, it becomes unsustainable to stick to safer international alternatives. There is simply nobody left to talk to on these platforms.
China has built its internet from scratch while Iran is “rebuilding” its internet. We’ll have to see how successful Iran will be. But with people’s prior experience with the ‘international’ internet and the language barrier that appears to be less profound than in China, I don’t expect the Iranian government to have the same level of success as the Chinese government any time soon.
The canary in the coalmine will be content (entertainment, music, video-on-demand): as soon as ‘national’ content on local platforms starts to outperform international content, we may have arrived at a turning point.
The Iranian government shut down the internet during the November 2019 uprising. The internet blackout allowed for widespread violent suppression. How does such a shutdown of the internet work? Did the Iranian government successfully shut down the internet from a technical point of view or did they have problems doing so? Is such a measure sustainable in the long-term?
-: As I mentioned before, I’m not an expert on internet topology and the physical dimension of the internet. Other people are in a much better position to talk about the nuts and bolts of the 2019 internet shutdown. In the simplest of forms, a government could simply “pull the plug” on the internet and other forms of communications. This is exactly what the Chinese government did to Xinjiang (western Chinese province) after the 2019 riots. Even SMS text messages and phone calls were not possible in the first 48 to 72 hours after the riots. The internet wouldn’t come back for a whole year.
But such a “brute force” approach has a huge economic impact. Governments — also authoritarian governments — are very dependent on the internet for service delivery and (possibly) surveillance. Removing internet access and telecommunications altogether may lead to additional civil unrest as well as a lack of knowledge around how people are organizing against the government and the communications blackout. So governments will instead try to institute “smarter” or partial blackouts. In 2019 the Iranian government tried to shut Iran off from international internet traffic while maintaining access to national services so that economic activity, including online banking and financial and economic services, could continue unimpeded.
At the same time, these services may (in part) be dependent on international services: the internet is a complicated network of interconnected services that depend on each other to continue operations. An Iranian bank may host its online banking systems with a Chinese cloud provider that has a physical presence in the United Arab Emirates. Unless and until all essential services are hosted nationally and audited for dependencies on international service providers, it may prove impossible to completely shut your nationwide internet infrastructure off from the international internet.
We know that the Iranian government is making moves in the direction of requiring service providers to host and process their data inside Iran. We also know that the Iranian government is attempting to centralize internet access and especially international internet connectivity in the hands of one or a few internet service providers (ISPs). In 2019 the Iranian government may not have been fully successful in shutting off the “international internet” but their efforts still made it prohibitively difficult for most people to access international services most of the time. As the Iranian government continues with their efforts, it may have more success in shutting down access while maintaining government and economic service delivery in the future.