Last week's reports that Iran was in the process of shutting down the country's access to the Internet sparked a firestorm of stories across the Web. In response, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology in Iran has called these reports a hoax and declared them a product of the propaganda wing of the West.
Hoax or not, this story raised some very real and valid questions surrounding the possibility for a country like Iran to shut down the Internet in order to gain more control over information from the outside world, and what information can make it out of the country. And it should be a call to the country's citizens to start considering alternate means of access.
Given the role that social media have played in uprisings in other Arab countries, there is little question as to why Iran would want to cut off access to the Internet, or at least the majority of it. Iran has already begun development of its own national information network, described as a closed network, which would severely limit access to the Internet by only allowing sites that have been white-listed by the government. Though no timeframe is known regarding a launch date for Iran's national network, there are several reports that it is in beta.
Limiting access to the Web is nothing new for Iran. In the past, the government has blocked sites with political content that's out of step with its worldview. At times, Iran has also blocked all sites that use the HTTPS protocol, basically eliminating any service someone would have to sign into. Many of the nation's Internet users have been able to use software to bypass the Iran firewall in the past. However, these workarounds are becoming less reliable as Iran continues to crack down on access.
With Iran's firewall becoming more difficult for its citizens to get through, and the looming threat of a closed network replacing the Internet hanging overhead, alternate means of communication will become a necessity.
One of the options for the people of Iran, if the government goes forward with its plan for a national, closed network, would be to establish their own "Darknets" -- or alternative networks that operate beneath the Internet's backbone. Though Darknets tend to have a reputation as spaces for illegal activity, they can also be a means of anonymous communication, which the citizens of Iran might very well be able to use to their advantage.
It has become clear that the power of the Internet is something that some governments fear. If the time comes when Iran really does decide that it wants to cut off the nation from the Internet, not only will its people lose access to the outside world, but much of the outside world will have limited access to information from Iran, and that will be a loss on both sides.
— Dana Blouin is a network engineer and technologist doing graduate work in information and communication technology at the University of Wisconsin.