Shutting off the Internet seems drastic. And it is — but not as a means for controlling what information reaches the citizens of the country being disconnected. What happened when Iran pulled the plug is telling: The shutdown appeared to do little to quell the unrest or thwart efforts to coordinate demonstrations, which continued throughout the blackout. Authorities made no attempts to monitor who was saying what to whom, or how, or where people were learning about the protests.
What an Internet blackout really shows is that a government is panicked about how little control it has. It’s an act of last resort by officials desperate to keep information away from citizens, or desperate to prevent citizens from telling the world what’s happening.
Every country has a slightly different idea of what a secure Internet would look like — and of the threats of online access. Russia, for example, is testing a plan to disconnect its national Internet from the rest of the global network. That indicates authorities see the threat as external in nature, rooted in concerns that outside organizations and countries might shut off access to essential Internet infrastructure and resources.
In China, the threat takes a different form: the possibility of outside content breaching their layers of network filtering and destabilizing society from within. As images of students engulfed in tear gas and videos of police officers shooting a protester in the street during the protests in Hong Kong have drawn widespread international attention, the government has responded by spreading disinformation. Fake social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter compare the protesters to the Islamic State and suggest that their actions were violent and funded by Western countries. In many cases, since this government propaganda was so far afield from what was being reported in news outlets, these disinformation efforts were fairly clumsy and transparently obvious — suggesting that, for all the energy China has expended on censoring incoming traffic, it has given much less thought to the problem of controlling outbound traffic.
During the Arab Spring, governments seemed most anxious about how the Internet could help protesters organize, or to circulate ideas and information within their borders. In January 2011, Egypt’s government shut off Internet and cellphone service in most of the country. The effort was “futile, because the protests were already underway, and counterproductive, because worried families, unable to call their younger relatives, rushed to Tahrir Square,” the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci writes in “Twitter and Teargas”: The blackouts simply drove more people outside to protest. Later research confirmed that online media did contribute to the movement — just not in ways anticipated by the government. Social media outlets did not appear to play a large role in helping protesters coordinate, according to a 2012 Institute of Peace report. Their analysis showed that most of the social media users clicking on links related to protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Bahrain were located outside the country in question — and outside of the Middle East and North Africa region entirely.
Iran seems to have learned this lesson: An Internet shutdown functions less as a communications blackout for its own citizens than as a news blackout for any would-be external observers or supporters. Since online access has slowly been restored, the videos that have begun to emerge on social media show protesters being shot and beaten, their bloody bodies lying on the street or being carried through crowds. Reviewing the footage in a video op-ed for the New York Times, Amnesty International lawyer Raha Bahreini said they document “an unprecedented use of lethal force against unarmed protesters.” To see them is to understand instantly why the government would take such extreme measures — and also those measures’ ultimate futility.
If shutting off the Internet in Iran was intended to hide the number of protesters or their violent treatment, it was a singularly conspicuous way to do so. There’s no way to cut off a country’s Internet access in secret, when all the online traffic going into and out of a country can be easily measured and tracked. A shutdown, in itself, attracts attention. And as the blackout lifts, graphic images of what occurred under its temporary cover inevitably make their way into the wider world.
Iran has certainly attempted to put subtler — and thus more powerful — restraints on its citizens’ online activity. A 2018 report by the Center for Human Rights in Iran details the government’s efforts to develop a National Information Network, which would allow fine-grained control over which online services and content Iranians could access and provide the state with comprehensive surveillance capabilities. The recent blackout is a strong signal that those efforts have yielded little success.
For a government to shut down the Internet is for it to concede, at a profound level, that it has no control over it — that it cannot effectively surveil, filter or regulate the Internet, but must instead resort to the clumsiest and starkest of means to cut off the outside world. In that sense, these shutdowns, while terrible to experience, can be a hopeful sign. They demonstrate how little progress governments have made in developing more covert, sophisticated means of controlling the Internet — and with it, their citizens.