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Iran's Internet Shutdown Emphasizes Need for Decentralized Mesh Networks

How decentralized technologies can address authoritarianism.

Iran's Internet Shutdown Emphasizes Need for Decentralized Mesh Networks

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Iran’s government shutdown internet access across the country in response to widespread protests. Iranians have taken to mesh networks to regain some access, emphasizing the need for a more decentralized alternative to the internet.

Protests broke out across major cities in Iran after the country’s government began raising the prices for gasoline. Although prices remain lower than the rest of the world, it is another injustice among a growing list. So far the protests have resulted in more than 1,000 arrests, several injuries, and a few deaths.

The government responded to these protests by staging an internet black out, blocking protestors from communication with one another or with anyone outside of the country.

Iran’s Internet Blackout

Shortly after Iranians began reporting poor Internet connectivity, NetBlocks, a non-governmental organization that monitors Internet accessibility around the world, confirmed that “Iran is in the midst of a near-total national Internet shutdown.” NetBlocks also added: 

“The ongoing disruption is the most severe recorded in Iran since President Rouhani came to power, and the most severe disconnection tracked by NetBlocks in any country in terms of its technical complexity and breadth.

The blackout includes all social media services, such as WhatsApp and Instagram. For protestors looking to organize events and spread information, the Internet disruption has been a major obstacle. There are also concerns that without the ability to share and document the events happening throughout the country, it would be difficult to implicate the Iranian government of wrongdoing.

(Source: NetBlocks)

When citizens attempted to connect to the Internet via their mobile devices, they were met with a recorded message from the National Security Council indicating that connectivity had been disconnected. To get a better understanding of how this is possible for a country with a population of 80 million, it is necessary to dig into changes Iran has been making to its telecommunications services.

The country’s leaders have been battling with similar economic protests in Iran since 2017. As such, the government has taken steps to gain more control over typically decentralized networks. In 2005 officialss first began work on a “national Internet,” sometimes called the “clean Internet,” and sought to distinguish the Iranian Internet experience from the rest of the world through censorship.

This was accomplished through agreements between private companies and the government, as well as technical solutions. Much of the same is happening in countries like Russia, Ethiopia, North Korea, and Venezuela. Similarly, China built its national Internet with such controls implemented from the beginning. 

Since these adjustments have been in place, Iran has been able to bring Internet connectivity to five or seven percent of its typical levels. At the same time, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, continued to post on Twitter. 

Forming a Peer-to-Peer Internet

In response to the shutdown, citizens turned to alternatives to bypass the intranet and communicate with one another. A local service called Toosheh, previously used to hack satellite televisions and stream “bundles” of typically censored content, has been gaining traction. 

The NetFreedom Pioneers, a group of American and Iranian activists behind the project said that “It can’t be censored…it comes from the sky. Our users just get a big folder of content, and there’s no trace of it on the Internet.” 

Now, with the protests in Iran in full swing, Toosheh is doing a lot more than just streaming videos. Hacker News, a popular forum for all things tech, hosted a conversation from Nov. 17, 2019 around Iran’s Internet blackout. One person wrote

I live in Iran and I am lucky enough to have a connected link right now, but this is the last link among the others I lost in the previous hours. I was wondering is there any stable solution like satellite Internet or something without direct affiliation with government for people like me, desperate enough to ask questions like this.

A fellow Iranian responded with a link to Toosheh adding, “install Toosheh while you can.” The conversation on Hacker News also cited the use of mesh networks and “a decentralized, blockchain-based DNS” to instantiate a truly “free” Internet. Scanning the crypto space over the past few years, such visions are not uncommon.

GoTenna, for instance, is a device about the size of a USB key which, when paired with other devices, can create a local network. Participants can pass encrypted messages and hop between other users without the use of the Internet. The technology has been welcomed by the cryptocurrency community with developers combining the two services to oust not just banking services, but other tech conglomerates from spying on participants’ activity. 

Similar services like Locha Mesh, SmartMesh, and New Kind of Network (NKN), are all pursuing similar ends. Each outlines an alternative view of the Internet, some of which also use cryptographic tokens. Instead of an internet dominated by centralized providers, which are often beholden to local governments, the groups building these mesh networks are executing on the idea of a ‘free’ internet. This idea isn’t new. Early proponents like John Perry Barlow had a vision for an unencumbered internet in the nineties.

In his most famous work, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” Barlow wrote in 1996, “governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

Written in 1996, nearly a decade before the launch of Facebook, the 2008 financial crisis, and more than twenty years before the protests in Iran, one can only wonder what Barlow would make of the Internet experience in 2019.

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