During the Arab Spring, the Egyptian government shut off the internet and mobile networks, causing ordinary citizens to go out into the streets just to see what was going on, and thus also increasing protest turn-out. When activists in San Francisco made plans to protest a police shooting at a metro station last summer,transitofficials also shut down mobile networks, causing greater furor and press coverage of the shooting and protest. Now Iran is moving key ministries and state bodies offline and building a national intranet that is expected to go online within the next 18 months.
Will the change backfire on Iran as it did in Egypt and the United States? Unfortunately, that’s unlikely. There is a big difference between shutting off communication entirely and simply reducing it. History shows that creating national intranets is an effective way for repressive governments to ride the razor’s edge of connectivity: give citizens enough connection for business, socialization, and entertainment, but not enough to expose them to foreign critical ideas about the regime or to share their own.
Because national governments completely control their intranets, these systems limit not only citizen’s ability to access information, but also to produce it. On China’s intranet, the oldest, government directs private platform operators (all based in China and subject to Chinese law) to take down user-generated content that the government finds dangerous.
Two other national intranets are North Korea’s and Cuba’s. North Korea’s intranet, called the Kwangmyong, contains only a few dozen web sites related to research and industry and, according to the Open Net Initiative, only a handful of ministries, businesses, and individuals have computers and connections needed to access the intranet. North Korea recently underwent a successful transition after the death of Kim Jong Il on December 17th, the same day that Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself in Tunisia, setting off the Arab Spring. The Kwanmyong successfully insulated North Korea from the information cascade of the Arab Spring, which resulted in new protest movements in the freer communication environments of Europe and the United States.
Even having an intranet is a compromise for repressive governments. Doubtless they would far prefer no connectivity at all. With any amount of connectivity, repressive governments run the risk that they will lose control as China did, when the sacking a party official Bo Xilai spread throughout the country on weibo microblog services regardless of the government’s attempts to keep the embarrassing story quiet.