Felicia Anthonio: It’s been a crazy month. It feels like you’re liv­ing a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent life than you used to. You have no con­nec­tion with the out­side world. The only news you are get­ting comes from the gov­ern­ment. The same gov­ern­ment that has been block­ing your Internet access. How can you believe any­thing they are say­ing right now? You need to find a way to be back online. You need to find out what’s real­ly hap­pen­ing in your coun­try and in the rest of the world. Luckily, you are not as alone as you thought. You are not pow­er­less. There is a wide net­work of peo­ple across the world work­ing every day to pre­vent, stop, and cir­cum­vent Internet shut­downs just like this one. They can help you take action. They can help you take back the tech­nol­o­gy that is being used against you. It is time to reclaim your right to uncen­sored and unblocked Internet access. 

Welcome to Kill Switch, a pod­cast series brought to you by Access Now, the KeepItOn coali­tion, co-sponsored by Internews, and pro­duced by Volume. I am your host Felicia Anthonio. 

In this six-part series, we want to high­light the trou­bling rise of a new form of anti­de­mo­c­ra­t­ic oppres­sion spread­ing across the world: government-created Internet shut­downs. We will be hear­ing from jour­nal­ists, activists, and experts who have been fight­ing to keep the Internet on, all the way from the high court of Sudan to the rur­al regions of Pakistan. 

This is the fourth episode of Kill Switch, an episode all about the tools, tac­tics, and tech­nol­o­gy being used to fight back against Internet shut­downs. We will deep dive into the tech­ni­cal side of Internet shut­downs and pro­vide you with some tools to help cir­cum­vent gov­ern­ment tac­tics that pre­vent peo­ple from get­ting online. The first per­son we talked to is Hassen Selmi from Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline.

Hassen Selmi: Our ser­vice is to respond to dig­i­tal secu­ri­ty inci­dents like a com­pro­mised sys­tem, com­pro­mised DDoS attacks, and Internet shut­downs. We pro­vide 24 by 7 ser­vice for mem­bers of civ­il soci­ety, and we are a free of charge facil­i­ty avail­able around the clock. 

Anthonio: Amongst all these ser­vices, the Digital Security Helpline also assists jour­nal­ists, activists, human rights and civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions who sud­den­ly find them­selves in the mid­dle of an Internet shut­down. But obvi­ous­ly, reach­ing Hassen becomes a lit­tle bit tricky when your Internet is not working. 

Selmi: It’s tricky when it comes to Internet shut­downs. Because the affect­ed pop­u­la­tions are usu­al­ly pre­vent­ed from reach­ing their email address ser­vice, so they can’t send you an email. So in these kinds of cas­es we usu­al­ly com­mu­ni­cate with what we call inter­me­di­aries who are very close to the affect­ed pop­u­la­tion but usu­al­ly have access to Internet con­nec­tion either using cir­cum­ven­tion tools or they are out­side the coun­try and com­mu­ni­cat­ing through avail­able communications. 

Anthonio: The amount of help Hassen can offer great­ly depends on the type of shutdown. 

Selmi: So, if it’s a par­tial shut­down usu­al­ly we try to under­stand how this shut­down is being imple­ment­ed. You will have to work around the method used to block the con­tent and make the cen­sor blind against your con­nec­tion. The tools that we usu­al­ly use are VPN or HTTPS proxy. 

Anthonio: A good VPN, or vir­tu­al pri­vate net­work, is the first line of defense against a social media block­ing. What a VPN does is it redi­rects your con­nec­tion to the Internet through a remote serv­er run by the VPN provider. This masks your own com­put­er’s phys­i­cal loca­tion and allows it to bypass block­ing. In most cas­es, it also adds a lay­er of pri­va­cy and secu­ri­ty to your Internet con­nec­tion. But all VPNs are not cre­at­ed equal­ly. In the boom­ing VPN mar­ket­place, it is impor­tant not to just pick the first VPN ser­vice that you come across. Hassen explains how you can make sure you pick a trust­wor­thy VPN

Selmi: First ques­tion, is the tool open source. This means you are able to see the code and it’s avail­able online for any­one to read and under­stand how this tool works. 

Anthonio: The sec­ond cri­te­ria is to see if it has received an inde­pen­dent secu­ri­ty audit.

Selmi: Most of the users are not skilled enough tech­ni­cal­ly to under­stand the code. So in addi­tion to open source code we need also trust­ed expert audi­tors to look into the code and make sure that it’s secure and that it’s not leak­ing any information.

Anthonio: As Hassen explains, even though a VPN can promise you pro­tec­tion, many of these sup­pos­ed­ly secure plat­forms actu­al­ly record user data on their own ser­vice. What if the gov­ern­ment forces them to hand over those records if they want to con­tin­ue oper­at­ing in their country?

Selmi: The thing is that when­ev­er you con­nect to a VPN, you real­ly put a lot of trust in that VPN provider because all your traf­fic will go through that VPN. So the VPN provider could record a lot of infor­ma­tion about you.

Anthonio: Hassen explains that acces­si­bil­i­ty is also an impor­tant cri­te­ria for pick­ing a VPN. Which VPNs are avail­able in your coun­try, and do they actu­al­ly work?

Selmi: In many years of shut­downs, we saw that VPN servers are also tar­get­ed by shut­downs. Which means that who applies the shut­downs also tar­gets VPN servers to block the use of them.

Anthonio: For this rea­son, the Digital Security Helpline rec­om­mends set­ting up your own per­son­al VPN serv­er out­side of the country.

Selmi: There is a lot of soft­ware that you can use to set up your VPN servers. And usu­al­ly those VPNs won’t be known to the cen­sors, as they are not pub­lic, and they won’t be able to block because they don’t know the domain or the IP of that VPN server.

Anthonio: These things might sound very dif­fi­cult to fig­ure out by your­self. Luckily, the Digital Security Helpline is there to assist you.

Selmi: So we can help peo­ple get access to those tools, and we can also assist which servers of the pub­lic VPNs are avail­able. VPNs that we at the Helpline trust and that the com­mu­ni­ty trusts are being con­tin­u­ous­ly audit­ed, and their code is avail­able online.

Anthonio: But VPNs also have a draw­back. In coun­tries where Internet con­nec­tion is slow, or the infra­struc­ture is not strong, VPNs can make your con­nec­tions even slower. 

Another draw­back is that VPNs only work for par­tial shut­downs, social media block­ing, or web site cen­sor­ship. When the gov­ern­ment decides to cut off all access to the Internet, things get a bit more complicated. 

Selmi: So the tools that are avail­able to be used with full Internet shut­downs are usu­al­ly very expen­sive or require some dif­fi­cult tech­ni­cal prepa­ra­tion when the shut­down happens.

Anthonio: Solutions to get back online include things like set­ting up a satel­lite connection.

Selmi: Satellite con­nec­tions are expen­sive, slow, and usu­al­ly not trusted. 

Anthonio: There is anoth­er inge­nious way to get back online.

Selmi: The sec­ond solu­tion could be to use inter­na­tion­al SIM cards with roam­ing, but it’s also expen­sive and come with a [logis­tic?] chal­lenge, espe­cial­ly in terms of how to deliv­er those SIM cards, so prepa­ra­tion is always important.

Anthonio: During the recent shut­down in Sudan, a SIM card exchange scheme seemed to work.

Selmi: People in the last Sudan black­out con­nect­ed with their rel­a­tives who could send them SIM cards via sim­ple mail. Those SIM cards came from coun­tries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, [Emirates?]. And they were able to con­nect to Internet using roam­ing and mobile data. And they were able to report from coun­tries where a com­plete shut­down was hap­pen­ing to a point that some coun­tries start­ed to block those SIM cards, but also some author­i­ties decid­ed to mon­i­tor those com­mu­ni­ca­tions and report them to the Sudanese gov­ern­ment, and this led to some arrests.

Anthonio: This is, Hassen explains, one of the most impor­tant yet often over­looked fac­tors to take into con­sid­er­a­tion dur­ing a shut­down. Getting online is not the only mea­sure of suc­cess. You also need to pro­tect your­self from mon­i­tor­ing, sur­veil­lance, and pos­si­ble con­se­quent persecution.

Selmi: To say that the cir­cum­ven­tion suc­ceed­ed does­n’t mean that you just get access to the cen­sored data or con­tent. You need to do that while you are real­ly pro­tect­ing your com­mu­ni­ca­tions, pro­tect­ing your iden­ti­ty. You real­ly need to secure your­self and secure your iden­ti­ty online when attempt­ing to bypass the shut­down. Because oth­er­wise, it could real­ly result in you being in trou­bles and oth­er peo­ple around you, like your con­tacts, get­ting into trou­ble or being arrested. 

Anthonio: Before any action can be tak­en against a shut­down, we first need to know what we are deal­ing with. How do we know exact­ly when a shut­down is tak­ing place, what kind of shut­down, and which regions are affect­ed? Is this a par­tial shut­down, a slow­down, a social media black­out, or tar­get­ed web page cen­sor­ship? Is this region­al, nation­al, or just in your dis­trict? Maria Xynou works on answer­ing these ques­tions at the Open Observatory of Network Interference, or OONI for short. 

Maria Xynou: OONI’s a free soft­ware project where we mea­sure Internet cen­sor­ship around the world. And as part of my role with OONI I man­age our research and com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment efforts. 

Anthonio: OONI start­ed as an ini­tia­tive that could help iden­ti­fy, track, and report on dif­fer­ent kinds of Internet cen­sor­ships or shutdowns. 

Xynou: The OONI project was born out of the Tor project back in 2011. It was start­ed by Tor devel­op­ers at the time who essen­tial­ly want­ed to cre­ate the first open method­olo­gies and the first free and open source soft­ware that any­one around the world could run in order to mea­sure Internet censorship. 

Anthonio: OONI is pow­ered by user-generated data. They cre­at­ed free open source tools such as OONI Probe to source and cor­re­late net­work con­nec­tiv­i­ty data from around the world.

Xynou: In order to under­stand what is hap­pen­ing on the Internet, you lit­er­al­ly would have to inspect and mea­sure every sin­gle net­work on the Internet, giv­en that the Internet is not one net­work but hun­dreds of thou­sands of many dif­fer­ent net­works. And so in order to be able to know what is blocked all around the world, the ques­tion is that of crowd­sourc­ing the data, crowd­sourc­ing the mea­sure­ments, col­lect­ing them in a cen­tral­ized way, and then pub­lish­ing them so that every­one around the world can have access to these measurements. 

And so that is why the OONI sys­tem was designed in the way that was, where essen­tial­ly the way that it would work is that any­one could use the tools for free and run tests to mea­sure the net­work, and then the results from their test­ing would be auto­mat­i­cal­ly sent to OONI servers where would it be auto­mat­i­cal­ly processed and auto­mat­i­cal­ly published.

Anthonio: But how exact­ly does OONI work? As Maria explains, it is quite fascinating.

Xynou: If you want to con­tribute mea­sure­ments, you can do that by run­ning OONI Probe. OONI Probe is avail­able for both mobile and desk­top plat­forms. On mobile you can install it on Android and iOS, and it’s also avail­able for F‑Droid. On desk­top you can install OONI Probe on Windows, on Mac, and on Linux.

Anthonio: The free and open source OONI Probe appli­ca­tion has a range of tests that you can run on your own net­work in order to con­tribute data and mea­sure­ments to the OONI database.

Xynou: One type of test is that which mea­sures the block­ing of web sites. The way it works is that our test per­forms cer­tain types of checks, and it per­forms those checks auto­mat­i­cal­ly over two van­tage points. One van­tage points is yours as the user. The oth­er one is a con­trol van­tage point which we con­sid­er to be a non-censored net­work. And so it per­forms these three checks from both net­works, and it auto­mat­i­cal­ly com­pares the results. If one of the checks from one of the two net­works dif­fers, then that is a sig­nal that there may be block­ing hap­pen­ing. But a con­fir­ma­tion would have to hap­pen manually. 

Anthonio: You can almost think of OONI as part of the Internet’s immune sys­tem, send­ing real-time alerts when­ev­er it detects an anom­aly or a threat­en­ing inter­fer­ence. It is only when an alert is sent that we can react. 

Xynou: In fact, con­firm­ing a case of inten­tion­al cen­sor­ship on the Internet can be very tricky. It can be very tricky to con­firm unless you per­form mea­sure­ment on the net­work lev­el. And because it can be so tricky and because there are so many rea­sons why web sites and apps and dif­fer­ent Internet ser­vices can be inac­ces­si­ble which may have noth­ing to do with inten­tion­al gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship, that is why gov­ern­ments can then seek plau­si­ble deni­a­bil­i­ty. In oth­er words they can deny that they inten­tion­al­ly shut down access to spe­cif­ic services. 

Anthonio: Intervention and cir­cum­ven­tion of Internet shut­downs can only hap­pen if we know a shut­down is tak­ing place, or about to take place. For that, we need accu­rate and time­ly data. 

Xynou: Our goal has been that of open­ly pub­lish­ing mea­sure­ments on an ongo­ing basis so that we can increase trans­paren­cy of Internet cen­sor­ship around the world. But also so that we can enable third par­ties to inde­pen­dent­ly inves­ti­gate cas­es of Internet cen­sor­ship and to inde­pen­dent­ly ver­i­fy any claims or find­ings that we com­mu­ni­cate through our research reports.

Anthonio: Each dis­rup­tion of net­work con­nec­tiv­i­ty leaves a mea­sur­able trace. By record­ing these traces of dis­rup­tion, OONI can cre­ate data-driven reports to increase trans­paren­cy of Internet cen­sor­ship to sup­port advo­ca­cy efforts. 

Xynou: In order for human rights activists and in order for human rights defend­ers to chal­lenge gov­ern­ments and to charge them legal­ly that they’re inten­tion­al­ly block­ing access to spe­cif­ic ser­vices, they need to have evi­dence. And when you’re talk­ing about Internet cen­sor­ship which is imple­ment­ed on the net­work lev­el, I think the only real evi­dence you can have is that of net­work mea­sure­ment. That which lit­er­al­ly looks at what is hap­pen­ing on the net­work and shows how an ISP is block­ing access to a spe­cif­ic web site. So that’s the sort of raw data that I think can some­times almost unde­ni­ably serve as evi­dence of block­ing. And so I feel as extreme­ly valu­able data to sup­port cam­paigns and to sup­port advo­ca­cy efforts against Internet shut­downs, and which can poten­tial­ly even help win cas­es in court. 

Anthonio: Collecting data is just one part of the puz­zle. The oth­er part of the puz­zle is mak­ing the data avail­able in a way that is use­ful to dig­i­tal rights activists, orga­ni­za­tions, and journalists. 

Xynou: So, OONI mea­sure­ments are pub­lished in pri­mar­i­ly two places. One place is called OONI Explorer, which is a web plat­form which is designed with human rights defend­ers in mind, and the gen­er­al pub­lic. By using OONI Explorer, you can search through the mea­sure­ments. There’s a web inter­face that enables you to fil­ter the mea­sure­ments based on the coun­try that you’re inter­est­ed in, based on the OONI Probe test that you care about

Anthonio: In near real-time, they ana­lyze and open­ly pub­lish all their net­work mea­sure­ments, cre­at­ing what is arguably the largest publicly-available resource on Internet cen­sor­ship and shut­downs to date.

Xynou: Every month, we col­lect on aver­age hun­dreds of thou­sands of mea­sure­ments from around 210 coun­tries around the world. And these are from tens of thou­sands of dif­fer­ent net­works, pro­vid­ing insight on the poten­tial block­ing of web sites, mea­sur­ing the block­ing of instant mes­sag­ing apps, cir­cum­ven­tion tools, and a num­ber of oth­er tests. And so we feel that this large data set pro­vides insight on all these dif­fer­ent types of net­work inter­fer­ence. And so we def­i­nite­ly encour­age data ana­lysts and researchers and human rights advo­cates out there to make use of this data and to uncov­er cas­es of Internet cen­sor­ship that we may not be aware of and to bring them to the pub­lic in order to encour­age more pub­lic dis­cus­sion around these cases. 

Anthonio: The Internet exists as a col­lec­tion of nodes, hubs, and net­worked com­put­ers. Similarly the fight against Internet shut­downs relies on a net­work of tools, tac­tics, peo­ple, and orga­ni­za­tions, all work­ing togeth­er. Part of OONI’s work is to run a part­ner­ship pro­gram through which local orga­ni­za­tions can con­tribute and also use OONI’s data in the fight against Internet shut­downs and cen­sor­ship in their regions. One of these part­ners is Venezuela Sin Filtro.

Andres Azpurua: Venezuela Sin Filtro is the project that ana­lyzes and doc­u­ments the sys­tem­at­ic and egre­gious human rights vio­la­tions in the dig­i­tal space. So, pri­mar­i­ly we doc­u­ment, almost in real-time when we can, Internet cen­sor­ship events. So Venezuela Sin Filtro has mul­ti­ple ways of iden­ti­fy­ing and doc­u­ment­ing cen­sor­ship, but the most impor­tant one for us is using OONI

Anthonio: This is Andres Azpurua, who lives and works in Caracas, Venezuela.

Azpurua: I work in Venezuela doing research and advo­ca­cy against Internet cen­sor­ship, includ­ing Internet blocks, Internet shut­downs, and we also try to doc­u­ment oth­er kinds of egre­gious vio­la­tions of human rights online. So we do doc­u­men­ta­tion and analy­sis on state-sponsored threats in Venezuela against cit­i­zens, activists, jour­nal­ists, and so on. 

Anthonio: What makes Venezuela a unique case is that the gov­ern­ment con­trols most of the essen­tial infra­struc­tures in the coun­try. This includes the main Internet ser­vice provider, or ISP, in the coun­try, CANTV.

Azpurua: So Venezuela, most online Internet con­nec­tions are with CANTV. It’s one of the capac­i­ties to con­trol that the gov­ern­ment has. Because even though all mobile ISPs and mobile oper­a­tors imple­ment the cen­sor­ship that they are required to imple­ment by the tele­com reg­u­la­tors, CANTV—the state-owned ISP—I mean, they go far beyond that. They do these kinds of real-time block­ing that is not the same that they require of the oth­er ones. Because in some cas­es, the oth­er ones don’t even have the tech­nol­o­gy to imple­ment such kinds of blocking.

Anthonio: Their con­trol over Internet access allows the gov­ern­ment to cre­ate very tar­get­ed Internet blocks.

Azpurua: So we start­ed to see what we call SNI fil­ter­ing in 2018, where even encrypt­ed con­nec­tions could be blocked. Picking indi­vid­ual pack­ages apart and under­stand­ing how the ini­tial con­nec­tion was being made between your com­put­er or a phone and the serv­er you want­ed to talk to. That same year we also saw the first time the Venezuelan gov­ern­ment blocked the Tor net­work. So peo­ple using Tor Browser or using Tor in oth­er ways—they could be using it for anonymi­ty or to cir­cum­vent oth­er kinds of cen­sor­ship. That was a wake-up call on inter­est in increasingly-sophisticated cen­sor­ship and attacks in Venezuela, and we were not wrong.

Anthonio: Although these are not full shut­downs, micro-targeted blocks inhib­it peo­ple from access­ing the infor­ma­tion they need at the time that they need it most. 

Azpurua: Yeah so, in Venezuela the prob­lem of Internet cen­sor­ship is inter­est­ing and com­plex. It’s not a mat­ter of whether some­day a new kind of web site is being blocked. It’s far more com­plex. We have short Internet blocks that last just twen­ty min­utes. But in that twen­ty min­utes is the twen­ty min­utes that affect­ed most peo­ple’s access just when the news was the most relevant. 

Anthonio: When peo­ple final­ly get online, they need to find ways to access cen­sored con­tent. News sites have found inge­nious ways to help peo­ple share cen­sored information.

Azpurua: So you have a com­mu­ni­ty of jour­nal­ists and inde­pen­dent news orga­ni­za­tions that try to find dif­fer­ent ways to get the news to their audi­ences. So instead of just pub­lish­ing on their web site and let­ting peo­ple come to them, they know that they can’t do that any­more. So we have stuff like WhatsApp groups, and Telegram groups, where indi­vid­ual jour­nal­ists or even the news­pa­pers, the online news orga­ni­za­tions, coor­di­nate those groups so that they can share infor­ma­tion in dif­fer­ent ways. Stuff like tak­ing pic­tures of their con­tent so that peo­ple can share that image on social media with­out hav­ing to get to the news web site itself, which is blocked. So at least they get a brief ver­sion of that content.

Anthonio: On the oth­er hand, users are also find­ing ways to access blocked infor­ma­tion online. 

Azpurua: Most peo­ple try to use a VPN. And you have like, net­works of peo­ple try­ing to help each oth­er con­nect to the VPNs, but those have prob­lems of pover­ty and lack of access to pay­ment meth­ods abroad and just…I mean the Venezuelan min­i­mum wage is $4 per month. Imagine how many peo­ple can’t afford just an online VPN serv­er they have to pay for. So like, find­ing information—what are the free options or [indis­tinct phrase] work for them. That’s one of the rea­sons why we had to set up this tuto­r­i­al. One is to give a clear, rec­om­mend­ed, safe and secure option. And the oth­er one is to help peo­ple how to con­nect. Because in Venezuela it’s some­thing that every­one needs. Even your uncle or your grand­fa­ther need a VPN so they can con­nect to news web sites and see their news. So that’s why we had to set this up.

Anthonio: One of the things that Andres and Venezuela Inteligente do is to pub­lish friend­ly, infor­ma­tive, and easy to under­stand videos about cir­cum­ven­tion tools and tactics.

Azpurua: The tuto­r­i­al videos start­ed very recent­ly. We have just start­ed two weeks ago, and since then have been releas­ing one week­ly. We dis­trib­ute them most­ly over social media. So we have them on YouTube at Conexión Segura. So you find Conexión Segura, which trans­lates to secure con­nec­tion.” So we’re cov­er­ing the very basics like how to use a VPN to avoid cen­sor­ship. This is how you open an app store; this is how you down­load it; now you click here; now you have to give per­mis­sions. Stuff like that so that no one gets like, trapped because of their basic dig­i­tal capac­i­ties or dig­i­tal lit­er­a­cy. And they can still con­nect to the Internet and watch cen­sored information. 

Anthonio: Where there is a will to remain con­nect­ed, there is a way to regain access.

Azpurua: In Venezuela that’s the last place for free expres­sion. Even though we see all of this cen­sor­ship and all of these lim­i­ta­tions and risks I’ve been men­tion­ing, the Internet con­tin­ues to be the last, only place where peo­ple can freely crit­i­cize the gov­ern­ment and share news that might be unde­sir­able to the gov­ern­ment. Even with all of this, it’s the only place that we can pre­pare, have tools, and have tech­niques to over­come those risks and those lim­i­ta­tions and con­tin­ue to connect. 

Anthonio: Unlike in Venezuela where Internet cen­sor­ship and shut­downs only real­ly saw an uptake in recent years, on the oth­er side of the world we find Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran has a long his­to­ry of Internet cen­sor­ship and shut­downs and has emerged as one of the nations with the most-sophisticated arse­nal for domes­tic Internet mon­i­tor­ing and control. 

Amir Rashidi: My name is Amir, Amir Rashidi. I’m an Internet secu­ri­ty and dig­i­tal rights researcher. Recently I joined the orga­ni­za­tion named [Neon?] as the direc­tor of Internet secu­ri­ty and dig­i­tal rights. And my main focus in the past ten years was on mon­i­tor­ing the sit­u­a­tion of Internet in Iran, cyber attacks, cen­sor­ship, Internet dis­rup­tion and shut­downs in Iran.

Anthonio: Amir is cur­rent­ly work­ing and liv­ing in the USA, hav­ing fled his home coun­try in 2019. For the last ten years, he has been work­ing fer­vent­ly to mea­sure, doc­u­ment, and inter­vene in cen­sor­ship and shut­downs in Iran. To help us under­stand the sit­u­a­tion in Iran, Amir will give us a brief his­to­ry of the Internet.

Rashidi: I would say Internet cen­sor­ship was born in Iran almost on the same day that the Internet became avail­able in Iran. This is the time that access to the Internet was through dial-up networks. 

Anthonio: But even back then, the Iranian gov­ern­ment had already start­ed for­mal­iz­ing and insti­tu­tion­al­iz­ing their absolute con­trol over the Internet. 

Rashidi: So, when the Iranian author­i­ties were faced and chal­lenged with pub­lish­ing arti­cles on blogs, they tried to basi­cal­ly cre­ate an insti­tute and bod­ies and passed the laws cre­at­ing poli­cies to con­trol the infor­ma­tion flow on Internet. At the begin­ning of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s pres­i­den­cy, they start­ed to cre­ate a project that at the begin­ning they used to call it Halal Internet. Finally they called it National Information Network, NIN

Anthonio: The NIN, or National Information Network, was an idea for a nation­al intranet that would replace access to glob­al Internet in Iran.

Rashidi: The basic idea back then, espe­cial­ly dur­ing Ahmadinejad, was cre­at­ing a wall around Iran and basi­cal­ly dis­con­nect­ing Iran from the rest of the world. 

Anthonio: But Ahmadinejad did not under­stand that with­out con­nec­tion to the out­side world, a nation­al intranet would nev­er be able to replace the Internet. The next pres­i­dent of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, knew just how impor­tant con­nect­ing to the glob­al Internet was if Iran was to keep up with oth­er countries. 

Rashidi: So, when Rouhani came to pow­er, his basic idea was engag­ing with the rest of the world. Was nego­ti­at­ing with the rest of the world to solve the polit­i­cal prob­lem and cre­ate jobs and more eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty for the peo­ple. He did some­thing good. For exam­ple, I do believe it was almost the first or the sec­ond month of his presidency—I mean Rouhani—he revoked a law that was passed by Ahmadinejad’s gov­ern­ment which basi­cal­ly pro­hib­it­ed hav­ing access to the fast Internet. 

Anthonio: But Rouhani, who had a back­ground of nation­al secu­ri­ty, also knew that the failed National Information Network project could be the most sophis­ti­cat­ed mech­a­nism of state con­trol in the coun­try’s history. 

Rashidi: So what was he did was, fin­ish­ing the project that Ahmadinejad actu­al­ly start­ed, the nation­al intranet. So he basi­cal­ly cre­at­ed that wall but…it’s like he cre­at­ed the wall but at the same time he kept some gates open for com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the rest of the world. 

Anthonio: Basically what that means is that Rouhani’s gov­ern­ment cre­at­ed a state-controlled net­work in Iran, and only through that con­trolled net­work could peo­ple con­nect­ed to the glob­al Internet.

Rashidi: Imagine you are in your office and you have access to the Internet. It’s like there is an inter­nal net­work inside your office… That you have access to your mail serv­er, your own mail serv­er inside the office; you have access to your own data­bas­es inside the office. But also there is one gate that you can access the glob­al Internet as well.

Anthonio: This allows Rouhani’s gov­ern­ment to shut down access to glob­al Internet but keep all the inter­nal net­works active. It is a shut­down of a new kind. It is a shut­down that allows a coun­try to keep func­tion­ing rel­a­tive­ly nor­mal while Internet access remains blocked.

Rashidi: We saw it in November’s shut­down that that net­work was work­ing and work­ing very well. And this is the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of Internet in Iran. So it’s quite unique because most of the coun­tries that do Internet shut­downs, they don’t have a local net­work inside the coun­try so when they shut down the Internet, every­thing is gonna be shut down. But in Iran when they shut down the Internet, the local services—local mail serv­er, local search engine, local Uber-type online taxis… And you know, all of these ser­vices which are local are oper­at­ing, but you don’t have access to the glob­al Internet.

Anthonio: Amir says that Iran will nev­er be able to emu­late China’s nation­al intranet, the Great Firewall of China, because the Iranian peo­ple refuse to remain cut off from the rest of the world.

Rashidi: Circumventing Internet cen­sor­ship is hap­pen­ing like it was hap­pen­ing in the past. But again, because we have a real­ly long his­tor­i­cal record of Internet cen­sor­ship in Iran, almost every­one in Iran knows how to bypass the cen­sor­ship. Tor avail­able, Tor is real­ly slow but it’s avail­able. Psiphon is avail­able. Google Outline is avail­able. Yeah, every­one is using VPNs and cir­cum­ven­tion tools, dif­fer­ent cir­cum­ven­tion tools that are avail­able in Iran. Even my mom knows how to bypass the cen­sor­ship because like it’s…I don’t know how long, it’s like maybe more than twen­ty years that we are deal­ing with the censorship. 

Anthonio: But these cir­cum­ven­tion tools do not help much when Rouhani’s gov­ern­ment decides to close the gates between the nation­al intranet and the glob­al Internet. 

Rashidi: The most fear in Iran is the fear of anoth­er shut­down. Every time that we have dis­rup­tion in Iran, that even that dis­rup­tion might be some tech­ni­cal prob­lem, if you look at the Farsi Twitter, all of the Iranian peo­ple inside Iran, they’re ask­ing, Are they going to shut down the Internet again? Is it hap­pen­ing again?” So the fear atmos­phere is real­ly dam­ag­ing the social and men­tal life of Iran. 

Anthonio: Iran, a coun­try with one of the most advanced cyber­se­cu­ri­ty arse­nals in the world is set­ting a prece­dent and becom­ing an exam­ple for oth­er repres­sive regimes. This new form of kill switch does­n’t dis­rupt a nation­al econ­o­my or infor­ma­tion net­work. Yet still, cit­i­zens are cut off from the rest of the world. But as we see around the world, peo­ple are deter­mined to remain con­nect­ed. As the gov­ern­ment cre­at­ed more sophis­ti­cat­ed tools, activists, engi­neers, and ordi­nary peo­ple are doing your best to keep up and keep them­selves online. 

In the next episode of Kill Switch, we talk to human rights defend­ers and advo­cates about the chal­lenges they face due to these Internet shutdowns.

For more infor­ma­tion about how to sup­port the KeepItOn coali­tion and our work, vis­it our web site, www​.access​now​.org. This pod­cast was pro­duced by Access Now and Volume, with fund­ing sup­port from Internews. Our music is by Oman Morí. Subscribe wher­ev­er you get your pod­casts, and share as wide­ly as pos­si­ble to help the fight against Internet shut­downs. I am your host Felicia Anthonio, and you have been lis­ten­ing to Kill Switch. Goodbye and remem­ber to Keep It On.