Rory Cellan-Jones

Iran's internet dilemma

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 19 Jun 09, 08:59 GMT

Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words. We've all heard about the cyber-battle between the Iranian government and opposition protestors, with a flood of information coming from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media sources, despite the efforts of the authorities to block web access. But this image - in a blog by the security firm Arbor Networks - really tells the story of the Iranian regime's strategy:

Graph showing the Iranian election traffic engineering

Arbor collects and analyses internet traffic data from 100 ISPs around the world. This graphic shows internet traffic to Iran - and you can see what happened at 1330 GMT on Saturday, the day after the election. The state-owned telecoms company simply pulled the plug, halting all internet communication with the outside world. Then, over the following days, traffic was gradually allowed through again, albeit at a much reduced level.

I spoke to Craig Labovitz of Arbor Networks, in whose blog this graphic appeared, and he had an interesting interpretation of what was going on. Why, for instance, had Iran not simply kept the tap turned off? Craig believes the authorities were buying time to install the filtering tools they needed to have a functioning internet infrastructure, but one over which they had some measure of control. So he reckons they gradually turned the tap back on as they put the filters in.

We talked about two very different countries that have also attempted to control the web; Burma and China.

"Burma in 2008 wasn't very delicate," he explained, referring to the regime's reaction to large-scale unrest. "They simply turned it all off, so there was six weeks without a phone call or an e-mail."

China, by contrast, has a very sophisticated filtering infrastructure, allowing for a completely open interchange of traffic with overseas trading partners, while maintaining strict control over access to forbidden sites and search terms.

Iran seems to be somewhere between the two. As a reasonably sophisticated economy with plenty of trade, it cannot afford simply to cut off links with the outside world, but it hasn't developed the skills of those who built the Great Firewall of China. "Iran is struggling with its strategy," says Craig Labovits,"and the traffic flows show that struggle."

The government is also struggling to compete with an opposition that call on the skills of one of the world's most vibrant blogging communities and plenty of tech-savvy folks.

Once you have begun to infuse your society and your economy with the chaotic and open spirit of the web, it's hard to return to an age where the state can tell you what to think. Hard, but as China shows, not impossible.


  • Comment number 1.

    Would be very interesting to see an extended graph, with data for a few days or a week before 12 June. There's a huge increase of traffic in just 4 hours, I assume that's when the results were anounced. But was the internet community as active before?

  • Comment number 2.

    The iranian government (and those of Saudi Arabia, China and a bunch of other repressive governments) use software supplied by Narus, who proudly proclaim themselves as "the leader in real-time traffic intelligence". strange thing is that Narus was founded by an Israeli ex secret service man, Ori Cohen. i guess when you're looking for filtering software you can't be too fussy about who you buy it from.
    the UAE uses software from another firm, Bitek, as do several other governments that want to control what their populations can view. another competitor is Cright. and where are these firms based? California! so much for the land of the free.

  • Comment number 3.

    @ 1: I got my answer by following the link in the story (should've done it in the first place). Quite a drop, I see.

  • Comment number 4.

    Interesting, it shows how people turn to the internet for information. It also shows how governments can try to stop that flow for their own ends. It also shows that people can always find a way to do something if they really want to. Hmm. The internet gives power back to the people.

  • Comment number 5.

    What about the attacks on Iranian servers, routers??

    In "these times" that is a crucial statsitic missing from the graph.

  • Comment number 6.

    Its weird to think of the consequences of turning off the internet. half of us wouldn't be able to work, the other half would finally get some work done!

  • Comment number 7.

    Iran can easily trace those internet users who contact western websites and restrict their access via their ISPs. Your ISP is your first point of contact and can make life very difficult for you if they wish.
    National border firewalls are not very good and can be infiltrated or fooled by many means such as proxies or even terminal servers. As this is a national security issue for Iran a homeland security set of laws and procedures like the USA could be implemented quickly and trace people's emails and web-browsing and phone calls and arrest them for breaching the law as currently are done in the USA and UK.

  • Comment number 8.

    We in the UK also have mass censorship carried out by an unaccountable quango. Under the guise of stopping users from breaking the law by accidentally visiting pages which contain child pornography, the clearfeed system filters every web request and can be used to block other illegal content, such violent pornographic images or stories, and sites which promote racial hatred or incite violence.

    It won't be long before we also have a proper set of filters in place.

  • Comment number 9.

    It is interesting the continuous cat and mouse game between the state
    and it's citizens (or shall we just call them users ;-).
    Thankfully tools do exist to hide and obfuscate traffic from the
    censors [1], [2]. Even cutting the pipes to the rest of the world
    you'd be surprised how many holes there are for data to get out.
    Though as you point out no country can afford to do that nowadays
    without affecting the rest of the economy.


  • Comment number 10.

    it seems the real "filtering tools " as you call them are infact the generic DPI (Deep Packet Interception/inspection) Hardware on the exact same lines as for instance Phorm and NebuAd use for wiretapping you, and your familys, grand parents,kids etc, personal dataflow property for their commercial profit.

    otherwise known as a covert "Wire Tap", Intercepting, processing and potentially storing every single data stream coming and going to YOUR ISP internet connection.....

    you have zero control of this kit as its connected directly to the other side of your Broadband wire in the data center of the ISP.

    THIS IS VERY DANGEROUS in the wrong hands, and almost undetectable or stoppable, NO setting you might change at your PC end will block this DPI kit .

    see for more info and to get help understanding what this DPI means for you, before we even consider how dangerous this DPU interception kit is in the hands of a repressive Govt looking for desenters, who,when and what they say privately to others over the web etc...


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