Iran: the State must be transparent about Internet disruptions

Digital 9 min read
ARTICLE 19
Iran: the State must be transparent about Internet disruptions - Digital

Summary

Given the record of the State in disconnecting the Internet for users, Iran must be transparent about Internet disruptions 

On the evening of Wednesday 26 June 2019, 90% of Iran’s ISPs were disrupted or disconnected. During this time Iranians starting reporting Internet outages as they tried  to connect to certain mobile carriers and home broadband networks, such as Shatel. Others were noting painfully slow speeds and disruptions to their Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). This disruption lasted for about two hours at or around midnight, according to measurements in Tehran after which connections returned to normal.  Users however, were reporting the disruptions from as early as 9pm Tehran time.  

This mass Internet outage across the country could  be seen through reports from Iranians on social media and through industry measurement data. Evidence of disruptions from Iran’s major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) was documented by NetBlocks, ArvanCloud, Oracle Internet Intelligence, RIPE and OpenDNS data. One user even described the outage as a “true National Internet” as reports indicated access to local platforms were generally easily available.  

The government response

Using Twitter to explain the reason behind the shutdown the Minister of Information, Communication and Technology (ICT), Mr. Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi directed two tweets, one at the BBC reporter Hadi Nili, and another at ARTICLE 19 Internet researcher Mahsa Alimardani.  

In one tweet directed to Hadi Nili, he claimed that  Iran lost 1000 GB per second of its bandwidth because of disruptions that occurred on routes connecting the Internet to Iran. He claimed that Iran’s upstream connections to international Internet fiber connections between Frankfurt and Bulgaria, in which the majority of Iran’s ISPs depended on, were disrupted, causing the disturbance for the one and a half hours. (See note to editors below. )

Iran’s total national bandwidth is a hard statistic to come by. According to measurements of Iran’s ISPs, this outage resulted in disruptions across 90% of Iran’s ISPs. If we use the Minister’s graph, the disruption of 1000 GB per second was a 60% outage of the nation’s overall bandwidth, making the likely total bandwidth of the country to be somewhere around 1600 GB per second. However, anecdotal reports of exponentially higher speeds to access to local traffic over international traffic are often reported.

Alimardani remains cautious about this claim.  “At the time of writing no evidence exists to support the claim that international connections were the reason behind the disruption. The government has not produced an official incident report.”

In another Tweet directed at to Mahsa Alimardani, the Minister claimed GTT networks, an international US ISP US, was responsible for the disruption in Hungary. This would mean a disruption to GTT infrastructure in Hungary caused up to 60% of Iran’s Internet bandwidth to be lost. In response to an enquiry made by ARTICLE 19, GTT said that there is not enough evidence to indicate GTT was behind these disruptions. Gulf Bridge International is the partner through which GTT streams their connection into Iran. However, different companies were also disrupted from peering with Iran during the same period.

Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) are where large data centres and ISPs connect to one another and exchange Internet traffic. In Iran, IXPs are run by the Telecommunication Infrastructure Company (TIC). The director of TIC, Sadjad Bonabi, also tweeted that the disruption was not part of any attacks against Iran or intentional dysfunction within Iranian infrastructure. (See notes to editors below for more detail.)

The need for genuine transparency 

When similar disruptions were experienced throughout the protests of late December 2017 and early January 2018 in Iran, Mr. Jahromi confirmed the National Security Council ordered Iran to briefly disconnect from Internet traffic as a national security matter. Last January, news quickly spread of  an experiment in disconnecting the Internet.” The exercise was designed  to disconnect Iran from foreign payment and financial platforms in order to increase reliance on local infrastructure. 

Relying on local financial infrastructure is not entirely unreasonable: they provide the added benefit of being faster and are not susceptible to financial sanctions. However the announcement did not clarify if connections for ordinary Iranians to international traffic would be disrupted. 

Widespread opposition forced the Minister to call off the experiment.  He defended the project as a misunderstanding caused by faulty framing from individuals behind the project, and to other interests such as those pursued by  the hardline news agency associated with the Revolutionary Guards, Tasnim News.  They were active in framing the experiment as an “Internet disconnection” to fit into their longstanding calls for more controls and censorship online. 

These incidents raise concerns for freedom of expression and access to a free Internet. Internet shutdowns of this nature clearly violate international human rights law. HRC resolution 33/13, adopted by consensus in June 2016, “condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt information online in violation of international human rights law” and called on States to desist from such practices. 

Given Iran’s past precedent with disrupting the Internet, the Minister of ICT must place transparency as a priority.  The Ministry must, as a starting point transparently document exactly what happened on 26 June. ARTICLE 19 urges the Ministry of ICT to not use vague tweets as an alternative to transparent and accountable government.  Iranians have a right to credible documented evidence for the disruptions they have endured. 

Notes to editors 

  • The first Tweet illustrated the outage using a vague mobile photo of a graph (with no clear x and y axis) to demonstrate the outages (see figure 1 below).  The Minister claimed the graph showed how Iran lost 000 gb per second of Internet traffic. According to the image his graph about 60% of the nation’s bandwidth was down. 
  • Figure 1: One of two Tweets the Minister of ICT published about the Internet disruptions. “In the same way as you see in the graph, disconnections in fibers from the upstream routes from Europe between Bulgaria and Frankfurt, where Iran’s providers have cables use were disrupted for 1.5 hours from international connections. 1000 gb per second were disconnected from the traffic.”

 

Figure 1
  • Within IXPs are ISPs, which operate their networks within the IXP and the larger Internet through the assignment of Autonomous Systems Numbers (ASN). Three major ASNs connect majority of the Iranian network to the outside world. The ASN that was disrupted on 26 June belongs to the Telecommunication Infrastructure Company (TIC), AS49666.
  • The visibility of this ASN to other nearby autonomous systems operated by international ISPs is illustrated in figure 2 graph below. 
  • Figure 2: The disruptions to Iran’s main ASN shows no visible routes to international peers, not just those from GTT (the Gulf Bridge International), which was the Minister of ICT’s explanation for the disruption.
Figure 2