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Explainer: Iran, fuel costs, and the internet shutdown

While most of us were going about our day this past Saturday, the Iranian government shut down internet connectivity in their country. By the evening, government leaders had instituted a near total ban on access to the internet in hopes to quell the protests in the country over rising fuel costs implemented by Tehran over U.S. sanctions. The shutdown halted all communication in and outside the country, and this isn’t the first time this has happened in Iran. With the power of the internet at the fingertips of everyday people, authoritarian regimes across the world have sought to clamp down on public access to the internet, to what their people can access and share, all in hopes of retaining power and control.

What happened?

On Friday Nov. 15, Iranian officials began to institute the internet shutdown in certain major cities in Iran, such as Tehran, which began to experience service issues that soon spread to the entire country by Saturday night. All internet access, including mobile networks, were shut down. The cybersecurity NGO NetBlocks reported that connectivity in the country had dropped to 7% of its normal load on Saturday at 6:45 p.m. UTC. The NGO reported that it took nearly 24 hours for the block to affect the entire nation.

Fuel costs in Iran have skyrocketed as Tehran sought to overcome the sanctions instituted by the United States, which lead to fuel rationing throughout the country. Tehran raised the cost of fuel in Iran to make up for the loss of crude oil shipments lost over the sanctions. Amnesty International reported that at least 106 protestors have been killed so far. This has become the largest internet shutdown under the leadership of the current president, Hassan Rouhani. It is worth noting that supreme leader, Seyed Ali Khamenei, retained access to the internet based on his Twitter account usage throughout the shutdown along with other government officials. As of 4:17 a.m. on Nov. 19, NetBlocks reported that internet access had dropped to under 4%. Iran is essentially now disconnected from the world and completely isolated from the rest of civilization.

How does this happen?

The internet is essentially a massive network of various computers and servers swapping information. As the internet grew in prominence throughout the world, each country took different steps as they adopted this life-altering technology. Countries like China took a hands-on approach as they developed their internet system, building in complete control by the government. China has used this heavy-handed approach to technological development for atrocious means in recent years, culminating in the “Great Firewall,” which blocks the free and open internet, promoting the propaganda that flows from the Chinese Communist Party. Recently, news broke of the internment of millions of Uighur Muslims into concentration-like camps through the use of cyber surveillance and tracking.

Nations like Iran and Russia retrofitted their traditional private and decentralized systems, like those found in most western democractic countries, with various degrees of control over connectivity after the systems were designed in the hopes of retaining control over the information that flows from and to their people. As WIRED reports, these controls often take the forms of government coercion over internet service providers (ISPs), who are forced by government officials to follow these edicts. Other methods such as state-run ISPs like that in Iran also allow the government to exert control of the information that flows in their country. In the case of Iran, the past decade has seen the creation of an intranet run by the state-owned ISP that provides basic internet access to the Iranian people but with massive amounts of censorship and control by the government itself. This intranet is similar to those found in countries like China and their “Great Firewall.”

One of the seemingly unintended and unseen consequences of this type of communication ban in Iran is that information continues to flow even without the internet as people take to the streets and by other means.

Why does this matter?

You may be wondering how an internet shutdown across the world might affect you and your everyday life. We each use the internet almost constantly as we communicate with one another, perform work tasks, and listen to music. The internet is everywhere, including in our home appliances and our vehicles. We use it without thinking that many people do not have the free and open access that we enjoy each day. 

In the West, we’ve grown accustomed to these freedoms and forget that there are millions of people worldwide living under the repressive hand of authoritarian regimes. The internet is a powerful tool of communication that has allowed human flourishing and the democratization of information in ways that the world has never seen before, but it has also opened the door to atrocities that we could have never imagined.

Iranian leadership is reminding their people that their basic rights of speech, autonomy, and personhood are subservient to the needs of the government. The freedom of speech and conscience are basic to our democratic order. Our system of government in the U.S. recognizes the God-given rights of the individual and the basic liberties we enjoy. In 2016, the United Nations declared internet shutdowns and government censorship as violations of basic human rights. 

2019 marked the ninth year in a row that internet freedom around the world has dropped in connection with social media manipulation, as seen in a recent report of 65 countries by Freedom House. This troubling trend reveals the power of connectivity and its link to human rights. In a world where everything is tied to the internet in some capacity, a government should not have the power to institute a blackout at will in order to recentralize power and deny rights to its people.

One of the greatest benefits of technology, especially the internet, is the democratization of power and of information. Christians believe in the rights of the individual because we believe that every person is created in God’s image and has certain inalienable rights (Gen. 1:26-27). Thus, Christians must stand against such violations of human dignity wherever they are found, including those that suffer at the hands of authoritarian regimes like Iran and China. We must stand up for those that cannot speak for themselves, whether that is from physical oppression or a total block on communication with the outside world by authoritarian regimes bent on retaining power over the weak and exploiting them for their gain.

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