After anti-regime protests rocked Iran over the weekend, the country is considering an even further crackdown on internet freedom on top of the censorship that’s already in place. This offers yet another reminder why we must resist calls from liberals and nationalist conservatives alike to give the government increased power over the web.
The threat of a violent crackdown on protesters looms after demonstrations began on Saturday. The unrest arose after the revelation that the Iranian military accidentally shot down a passenger aircraft, killing all 176 people on board, including Ukrainians and Iranians alike. Thousands took to the street, protesting the regime and chanting, “Death to the dictator.” Now, government forces have started shooting protesters.
Meanwhile, the country’s authoritarian crackdown on technology threatens to make the situation much, much worse. According to Newsweek, parts of the country are now experiencing suspiciously-timed internet outages, raising alarms in light of the Iranian internet infrastructure being state-run. So, too, the regime will reportedly consider mandating a complete structural shift from an internet to an intranet. This would cut off access for millions and force everyone else onto the wired intranet connections it controls and has previously used to “silence protesters and quell unrest.”
Here’s how tech publication Wired explained the regime’s past repressive practices:
Increasingly over the past decade, the Iranian regime has focused on building out a centralized national “intranet.” That allows it to provide citizens with web services while policing all content on the network and limiting information from external sources … In the process of establishing this internal web, the Iranian regime has taken more and more control over both public and private connectivity in the name of national security.
Specific examples reveal the terrifying consequences of such concentrated government control.
For example, in 2009, the Iranian regime simply “turned off” the internet in many parts of the country to quell unrest that emerged as a result of that year’s elections. And it interfered with the 2013 election as well, by blocking websites containing certain keywords and candidates’ names. In a more recent example, in 2018, the Iranian regime blocked the popular messaging service Telegram in a blatant attempt to shut down critics’ communications. It also launched a crackdown on the virtual private networks citizens were using to circumvent censorship tools.
The technicalities and specifics involved in this kind of internet censorship are quite complicated, but the lesson is clear: Granting government power over the free flow of information is a recipe for abuse.
The Iranian example offers an important warning against the kind of big-government policies proposed by socialist presidential aspirants such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and a poignant reminder as to why we should never grant the state control over the internet. Of course, most Democrats aren’t calling for an all-out takeover of the web, but some are getting dangerously close.
Sanders, for instance, has called internet access a “human right” and thus believes it should be a “publicly owned utility.” As I previously described his formal campaign plan, “The senator … would essentially have the federal government take control of the internet in almost Orwellian fashion.”
And Warren has repeatedly called for big government to step in and “break up” Big Tech companies such as Facebook and Google.
This isn’t as extreme as a complete government takeover, but the Massachusetts Democrat and socialist-lite presidential candidate has nonetheless said she thinks Silicon Valley should be subjected to the whims and dictates of Washington bureaucrats. Sadly, in this desire to see government heavily involved in the internet, Warren is joined by some anti-tech conservatives, such as Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley.
Plus, pretty much every elected Democrat supports reinstating “net neutrality,” the unnecessary regulation of internet service providers that was instituted under the Obama administration. Support for various levels of state control of the internet has become commonplace on the Left, and, increasingly, on the nationalist Right as well.
But sensible observers should look at the way Iran has used state control of the internet to oppress its people and reject these proposals. No, none of the Democrats’ individual policies would turn our online experience into an Iranian nightmare overnight. Yet they would all shift the needle substantially toward state control, paving the way for further expansion of government power and future abuses. The Iranian example makes it clear that the only way to preserve a free and open internet is to keep the government as far away from it as possible.