The group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) has, by all appearances, a worthwhile goal, which is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. To accomplish this, it often puts pressure on private companies to divest from Iran, both directly and through any subsidiaries or affiliated business that might do business there. By and large, this is clearly the free exercise of economic power to try to bring about social change, something I generally support. I could say a few things about the long-term wisdom of tarring an entire nation of people with a history and culture spanning millennia based on the oft-psychotic behavior of a 33-year-old regime, but let’s focus on UANI’s latest campaign instead.
According to a UANI press release dated September 18, 2012:
On Tuesday, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) launched its World Wide Web campaign, and called on both the Internet Corporate for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and Réseaux IP Européens Network Coordination Centre (RIPE) to disconnect the Internet access of sanction-designated Iranian entities such as its Central Bank and its military’s engineering arm.
ICANN is the nonprofit corporation that has the authority to designate and assign domain names on the World Wide Web. RIPE performs a similar service in Europe. UANI sent letters to both agencies on September 7, demanding that they cease providing services to “sanction-designated Iranian entities.” This may work as a public relations move, but it has multiple problems, not least of which is the fact that ICANN and RIPE can’t just turn off a spigot and cut Iran off. UANI seems to be suggesting cutting off specific Iranian entities included on the sanctions list, but it could never work that way. John Levine, a writer for the internet technology journal CircleID, calls the idea that ICANN or RIPE could just cut Iran off “ridiculous”:
Even if IANA [the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, which manages IP addresses] wanted to block or disable individual domain names, they can’t, because the DNS doesn’t work that way. They manage the top level delegation to .IR and .COM, but the internal structure of those domains are managed by the Institute for Studies in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics in Teheran (which is not on the sanctions list) and Verisign, respectively.
Furthermore, is it really a good idea to try to block a nation of people, many of whom do not like their government, from the global internet? The Iranian government may want to do that, but should the rest of the world help them? This is a nation of almost 79 million people, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. Levine also addresses the political ramifications of cutting off Iran’s access to the World Wide Web:
Politically, cutting off a top-level domain from the root is a complete non-starter. Even though the US government has had its thumb on the root zone since the day the DNS first went live, it has never interfered with countries’ management of their ccTLDs, even countries like Cuba and North Korea that the US really doesn’t like. Were the US to try to disable .IR, it would provoke a huge international outcry, and not just from countries sympathetic to Iran.
Remember the protests in Iran in 2009 after the disputed presidential election? The one dubbed the “Twitter Revolution”? The one that led to the Iranian Green Movement calling for reforms? The various social media campaigns that are still going on? It obviously did not turn out the way many people in the West might have liked, but it was, by and large, an Iranian response to an Iranian problem.
I’m sure the protests both could and would have happened with or without the internet and social media, but should the world really test that theory? Cutting off the internet (which is an oversimplified concept of what cutting off the .IR top-level domain would do) can only hurt ordinary people. In fact, Tehran may do just that in order to preempt any move by ICANN or anyone else, switching to an internal web. Call it an Iran Wide Web, if you will. Not a good idea.