Censoring The 'Net Is Hard

from the even-for-authoritarian-governments dept

Over the last few months, I’ve been doing research on a forthcoming paper for the Cato Institute on the network neutrality debate. In the next few weeks, I’ll be doing a series of posts on the major themes of my paper. My goal will be to highlight some interesting stories from the tech world, and then highlight their broader policy implications.

This week, the blogosphere is abuzz with the story that Iran may shut down the Internet on the date of its elections next week. I should note at the outset that I’m a little bit skeptical of this story, which seems to be rather thinly sourced. It’s been picked up by a bunch of news outlets, but they all point back to the same International Herald Tribune article. That story cites two unnamed Iranian media outlets, which apparently don’t even agree with each other about the reasons for the supposed Internet blackout. And the idea of blocking Internet access on election day just doesn’t make a lot of sense. I can imagine why an authoritarian regime would shut down the Internet for a week or two before the election to suppress access to information about the election. But a block on the day of the election — especially one that’s announced a week ahead of time — doesn’t seem like it would do the government any good.

In any event, this certainly wouldn’t be the first time Iran has instituted broad restrictions on Internet access in an effort to suppress the free flow of information. In 2006, Iran reportedly required that home Internet connections be reduced to 128 kbps. That doesn’t make a lot of sense either; 128k is still plenty of bandwidth to download compressed audio, for example. But the Iranian government turned to a broad restriction on bandwidth after other efforts at content filtering failed. It seems that “as fast as they put up information roadblocks, Iranians have found detours around them.” The only way the Iranian government has found to cut off the flow of information it doesn’t approve of is to restrict the flow of information, period.

Some advocates of network neutrality seem to think that network neutrality is an issue of free speech. The fear is that AT&T or Verizon will use sophisticated filtering technologies to block content and websites they don’t approve of. A conservative telco might block liberal blogs or YouTube videos, say, or maybe Ford would pay telcos to block access to Chevy’s website. But if the government of Iran — an institution with an almost unlimited budget and the ability to throw people in jail — can’t keep information it doesn’t like away from its citizens, it’s awfully hard to imagine that AT&T or Verizon would be able to do so. Iran has found that the only way to limit access to content it doesn’t like is to limit access to the Internet altogether. Obviously that’s not going to work for telcos, which are in business to make money. There are certainly some plausible arguments for network neutrality regulations, but fears of telco censorship are pretty low on the list.

Other posts in this series:

Filed Under: , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Censoring The 'Net Is Hard”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Easier To Sabotage The Net, Leveraging Tech Ignora

Not sure I agree that “Iran has found that the only way to limit access to content it doesn’t like is to limit access to the Internet altogether.”

The easiest way to limit access to content would be to take advantage of the average user’s ignorance (as Comcast has). Instead of blocking the whole Internet, or entirely blocking a particular content type, site, etc. – both of which are very easily noticed – governments could slow access to certain content, or introduce errors and glitches.

I’m not saying that this would be entirely successful, but when you just corrupt the flow, most people don’t know why the service quality is so bad, and just give up. They’ll blame their browser, their modem, their PC, or the host site. This is why the “uproar” over Comcast’s BitTorrent filtering has been limited to a fairly small cadre of geeks.

It’s like election rigging: nobody dares say, “Group x is not allowed to vote”. That would be obvious to outside eyes, and could cause a revolt. Instead, jerks just intimidate group x, jerrymander, screw with voter lists, and make the travel distance large to the point where it’s not worth the costs to go to the polling place. Yet in the case of election-rigging, non-technical people can understand what really happened. In the tech world, few people do.

Current world politics has shown that it’s hard for people to fight back when they can’t correctly identify the enemy.

Hyrulio says:

I hope they don't read this

The best way would be to employ people with a decent knowlege of computers who could simply administer some governmental DDoS attacks and take the site down, mind you, then other countries would complain about their porno being unavailable and it would start a war……

Parhaps DDoS at the next UN perogotive?

Anonymous Coward says:

Doesn't have to be impossible, just hard

IP blocking all of Ford’s sites would be enough to stop at least 99% of all people. Most people don’t have enough time to look into proxies, Tor, or whatever to get through. It’s just not worth the trouble. The only people that will proxy are people trying to get to TPB and stuff lke taht.

Jeff Linton says:

Iran's possible reasoning

Since this site is oriented toward technology and not politics I think you have missed a potential reason behind Iran wanting to shut down the internet. It is one thing to announce the results to an election days after and alter the votes in your favor; however, with the immediateness of Internet communication there could be more questions as to the validity of the election results.

Ran Guu (user link) says:


In the headlong rush to “monetize” their portals, many video sites such as Youtube, Blip.Tv , Metacafe, and Veoh have developed some interesting technology that randomly places advertisements surrounding the videos. Some even place ads on top of the videos. But at the same time, some devilish pranksters have taken to uploading some really hardcore porn on these sites, knowing it could take days before a real human being at these portals is made aware of what has been uploaded. The situation has been producing some very interesting relationships between the porn and some of America’s biggest corporations.

Check out http://www.planetpop.tv/culturetrends for a good laugh

known coward says:

blocking is easy

Pakastan took down Youtube for half of south asia without really trying.

Blocking nets is easy. Try this on your outbound router port and see what comes back from 192.9.121.X

route add /dev/null0

While i like the idea of a free unfettered net, the reality is that goverments can block whatever they want too, as long as they know about it. The net does not supercede geopolitical realities, as some would have it. The net does not see censorship as damage and route around it, The net see’s censorship as a black hole.

Charlie (user link) says:

Stanford's Clean Slate Project

Censoring the net might be difficult in its present form, but some folks are working very hard to re-design it from the ground up. They want to increase ‘control and management’ in order to ensure ‘quality of service’ and provide ‘value-added services.’ I like my Internet just fine the way it is, thanks.

A Clean Slate researcher from Stanford recently gave a talk at my university, and the whole thing was basically a thinly veiled attack against Network Neutrality.

Bootstrap (user link) says:

Since this site is oriented toward technology and not politics I think you have missed a potential reason behind Iran wanting to shut down the internet. It is one thing to announce the results to an election days after and alter the votes in your favor; however, with the immediateness of Internet communication there could be more questions as to the validity of the election results.

Electronic Cigarette Review (user link) says:

Government Control

With all the new things happening with ICE being able to just shut down websites, I don’t know what to think of it. I know the new bill says that it’s to close down copyright infringement sites, but I bet you somewhere in that bill is fine print that says they can shut down any site they want to for any reason. What ever happened to freedom of speech?!

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...
Older Stuff
09:37 British Telecom Wants Netflix To Pay A Tax Simply Because Squid Game Is Popular (32)
04:55 Axios Parrots A Lot Of Dumb, Debunked Nonsense About Net Neutrality (54)
10:50 NY AG Proves Broadband Industry Funded Phony Public Support For Attack On Net Neutrality (10)
06:24 The GOP Is Using Veterans As Props To Demonize Net Neutrality (22)
06:03 Telecom Using Veterans As Props To Demonize California's New Net Neutrality Law (12)
09:32 AT&T Whines That California Net Neutrality Rules Are Forcing It To Behave (11)
06:23 The New York Times (Falsely) Informs Its 7 Million Readers Net Neutrality Is 'Pointless' (51)
15:34 Facebook's Australian News Ban Did Demonstrate The Evil Of Zero Rating (18)
04:58 'Net Neutrality Hurt Internet Infrastructure Investment' Is The Bad Faith Lie That Simply Won't Die (11)
05:48 Dumb New GOP Talking Point: If You Restore Net Neutrality, You HAVE To Kill Section 230. Just Because! (66)
06:31 DOJ Drops Ridiculous Trump-Era Lawsuit Against California For Passing Net Neutrality Rules (13)
06:27 The Wall Street Journal Kisses Big Telecom's Ass In Whiny Screed About 'Big Tech' (13)
10:45 New Interim FCC Boss Jessica Rosenworcel Will Likely Restore Net Neutrality, Just Not Yet (5)
15:30 Small Idaho ISP 'Punishes' Twitter And Facebook's 'Censorship' ... By Blocking Access To Them Entirely (81)
05:29 A Few Reminders Before The Tired Net Neutrality Debate Is Rekindled (13)
06:22 U.S. Broadband Speeds Jumped 90% in 2020. But No, It Had Nothing To Do With Killing Net Neutrality. (12)
12:10 FCC Ignores The Courts, Finalizes Facts-Optional Repeal Of Net Neutrality (19)
10:46 It's Opposite Day At The FCC: Rejects All Its Own Legal Arguments Against Net Neutrality To Claim It Can Be The Internet Speech Police (13)
12:05 Blatant Hypocrite Ajit Pai Decides To Move Forward With Bogus, Unconstitutional Rulemaking On Section 230 (178)
06:49 FCC's Pai Puts Final Bullet In Net Neutrality Ahead Of Potential Demotion (25)
06:31 The EU Makes It Clear That 'Zero Rating' Violates Net Neutrality (6)
06:22 DOJ Continues Its Quest To Kill Net Neutrality (And Consumer Protection In General) In California (11)
11:08 Hypocritical AT&T Makes A Mockery Of Itself; Says 230 Should Be Reformed For Real Net Neutrality (28)
06:20 Trump, Big Telecom Continue Quest To Ban States From Protecting Broadband Consumers (19)
06:11 Senators Wyden And Markey Make It Clear AT&T Is Violating Net Neutrality (13)
06:31 Net Neutrali-what? AT&T's New Streaming Service Won't Count Against Its Broadband Caps. But Netflix Will. (25)
06:23 Telecom's Latest Dumb Claim: The Internet Only Works During A Pandemic Because We Killed Net Neutrality (49)
13:36 Ex-FCC Staffer Says FCC Authority Given Up In Net Neutrality Repeal Sure Would Prove Handy In A Crisis (13)
06:27 Clarence Thomas Regrets Brand X Decision That Paved Way For The Net Neutrality Wars (11)
06:17 The FCC To Field More Comments On Net Neutrality. Maybe They'll Stop Identity Theft And Fraud This Time? (79)
More arrow