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Oh, What a Splintered Web We Weave

Technology Policy Brief #70 | By: Steve Piazza | October 17, 2022

Header photo taken from: Radio Free Europe

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US allows tech firms to boost internet access in Iran. The Iranian government cut most internet access for its 80 million citizens during a crackdown on demonstrators protesting the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police.

Photo taken from: AP Photo / Michael Sohn

Policy Summary

The Biden Administration recently announced that it was going to ease restrictions on internet usage in Iran following ongoing protests over the killing of Mashi Amini while she was in police custody for violating the country’s stringent dress code. The restrictions had been part of larger sanctions levied against Iran for its nuclear program and for state-supported acts of terrorism around the world.

U.S. Treasury GENERAL LICENSE D-2, which allows for the reopening of the internet in Iran, is not unlike its issuance of GENERAL LICENSE 25 of April 4, 2022 in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. D-2 also allows for communication exchanges involving such tools as instant messaging, social networking, video conferencing authorization servers, and basic internet cloud based servers.  And just like the earlier agreement, the more recent license makes it clear that anything other than communications that are prohibited in earlier regulations are still not allowed.

This reversal is now consistent with past U.S. and international attempts to promote rules designed to prevent global citizens from being unable to access networks open to the rest of the world. It’s long been agreed that a spliternet, or an internet that is separate and centrally controlled, does not promote democratic values and must be discouraged.

Policy Analysis

Early internet pioneers envisioned a networked system that promoted democratic principles, and thus designed its infrastructure to achieve that. The open internet has grown to consist of over 12.2 billion connected computers around the world, each with its own unique hardware name and IP address (location). 

It would seem that the idea of controlling so many devices would be difficult, but in reality that’s not the case. It only takes an authoritative will to force local internet providers to surrender the necessary machine information in order to control what users see, and don’t. Knowing which IP addresses to filter, a disreputable government can break its own citizens off from each other, and the rest of the world. 

The concept of a fragmented internet is not a new one. The term splinternet was first coined back in 2001 to describe sovereign states’ decisions to break up the global network into different, somewhat separate systems via the implementation of filters.

 Justification for the filters, applied from within a country or without, may convey that they are designed to protect privacy or block culturally undesirable or threatening sites. However, the filters are too often implemented for censorship or propaganda purposes.

Despite agreements between many countries to prevent splintering, such as the 2017 International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace, splintering has not been thwarted. China, Russia, Iran and North Korea have long been considered the worst offenders in splintering the internet, even though China has paid plenty of lip service in support of the accord. Its latest move to censor social media posts showing protest banners hanging off of Beijing’s Sitong bridge shows how much their internet Great Firewall is still very much in play.

In Iran’s case, the splintering had taken place incrementally over time by an outside state or states, particularly the United States. A country-wide internet shutdown was embedded within overarching sanctions attempting to influence changes in behavior and perhaps even a regime change.

Effects on the Iranian government and officials aside, the lack of access mostly ended up creating a closed, controlled environment that runs counter to the web’s original design promoting democracy and free speech. Instead, this isolationism tragically resulted in great economic, physical, and emotional suffering to Iranian civilians.


"The Splinternet." Thanks to government controls, there are several distinct versions of the internet: China has its own Internet; Iran has its one, as does North Korea. Cuba, Russia, Sri Lanka (even France) are all in on the action. Any country where a threat exists from, facts, news, history, really any non-official information as to most of the world operates has a problem with a free and open web.

Photo taken from: TBA

(click or tap to enlargen)

Since 2016, when the US severed its contractual relationship with The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), its global leadership towards an unencumbered world wide web has waned. Thus, it now has the flexibility to develop its own splinternet-like tactics in the name of policies that serve its own interests, all the while endorsing the idea of openness as a central value.

It’s a tricky walk, though. Using sanctions in Iran for a regime change, for example, becomes a human rights issue, according to Assla Rad, Research Director at the National Iranian American Council. “If broad-based sanctions are indeed to be understood as a tool of accountability in international relations, then they should not themselves violate international law by carrying out collective punishment against a civilian population.”

But yet, bereft of cooperative agreements with a global commitment, the U.S. seems determined to turn the internet on and off as needed. Certainly the recent moves show that they believe they are able to do so in order to achieve favorable results.

In the future, it would be important for all governments to prioritize the inclusion of civilians and industry to be a part of the conversation as sanctions are being considered. Especially before implementation, so those in government can be reminded that specific bad players can be identified, even sanctioned, without having to bring the whole system down and causing harm in the first place.  Collateral damage is not a strategy.

An open internet that allows for the free flow of substantiated news and verified information is what stands between us and totalitarianism. Taking the internet  away and restoring it only after people suffer, and even die, is nothing short of barbarism.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

To read the actual text of the U.S. Department of the Treasury GENERAL LICENSE D-2, click this link: https://home.treasury.gov/system/files/126/iran_gld2.pdf

Organizations like the Global Network Initiative (GNI) are actively working to keep the internet private and safe while at the same to protecting freedom of expression: https://globalnetworkinitiative.org/about-gni/

This letter from the human digital rights advocacy group Access Now is a good example of what strength through collaboration can look like: https://www.accessnow.org/letter-us-government-internet-access-russia-belarus-ukraine/

NetBlocks monitors internet outages and disruptions around the world and reports on digital rights as part of its mission: https://netblocks.org/

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