The Iraq Crisis and the Internet Shutdown

The Iraq crisis and the violence at the hands of ISIS has been hitting the international headlines for many weeks. Described by the mainstream media as “even more extreme than Al Qaeda”, ISIS has surged in popularity by posting brutal images on social media.

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Photo: Iraq Ministry of Communications

Twitter has suspended more than six accounts that were affiliated with ISIS. The @Nnewsi account tweeted about ISIS’ expansion in Mosul. Another account @raqqa98, operated by ISIS, was suspended, although they changed its name to @w_raqqa to confuse outsiders. Prior to suspension, the account had above 32,600 followers.

According to Twitter’s policies, they will suspend accounts that use excessive violence or at government request.

There are Twitter handles (like @ansaar999) that appear to have ties with ISIS. The @ansaar999 handle repeatedly tweeted warnings to the American people and advised its 23,600 followers to tweet in English, and add images wherever possible.

The tweets were directed towards U.S. media personalities and politicians having a large Twitter following (including Jimmy Kimmel and Oprah Winfrey). The main purpose of this social media propaganda was mass recruitment and to get public support from other countries.

Realizing that ISIS has been using social media websites as propaganda tools, the Iraqi government had ordered a complete shutdown of Internet services in certain areas. Apart from that, they have also restricted the use of VPN and social media services throughout the country.

According to a translation by Mohamad Najem, the policy director at SMEX (Social Media Exchange), the complete Internet shutdown has been enforced in five districts: Anbar, Ninawa, Kirkuk, Saleh El Din, and Diyalah. These five provinces have to face full Internet shut down due to the strong presence of ISIS.

The government has also imposed a VPN curfew in the entire country as all VPN services have been stopped between 4pm and 7am daily. Social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have been blocked. Applications like Skype, Viber, Tango, Instagram, and Wechat are also restrained.

The KUNA (Kuwait News Agency) had reported earlier that the ministry of communications has received instructions from the government to block social media as well as pornographic websites.

The purpose of the ban on pornographic websites amidst a nationwide military crisis might be debatable, but the government has a good reason to block social media websites as ISIS is using these sites to strengthen their impact. Apart from that, rumor mongers are using old war photos to create fake news stories.

Although there is a shutdown of the major social media sites; with the use of the right tools, Iraqis can easily access these services. A complete shutdown of the Internet throughout the country is unlikely, as it is very hard to implement. According to Md. Al Rawi, the former IT executive of the L.A. Times Baghdad, there are hundreds of ISPs in Iraq and some of them use satellite connections that are beyond government control.

Al Rawi expressed his concerns about the Internet shutdown and censorship by the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He compared it to Saddam Hussein’s time. Al Rawi is currently in Los Angeles, but originally hails from Iraq. The reason behind the Iraq invasion was to throw over the dictator and give democracy and freedom to people. With this move, Iraq is back to square one.

While the Internet shutdown news has been bad for many, it has its own merits – particularly for an app called FireChat. Ever since the Internet shutdown and censorship was enforced, the FireChat app has been downloaded more than 40,000 times. Before the crisis, the app had been downloaded only 6,600 times in Iraq. With such heavy traffic, Iraq has become the second largest user of FireChat.

FireChat by Open Garden was introduced in March this year. The app hosts anonymous and public chat rooms around popular topics like the World Cup or Game of Thrones. But that’s not the main beauty of this application. Users have been going crazy over the “nearby” feature that uses mesh networking technology. It uses the wireless signals of one phone to communicate with other devices in the neighborhood. This feature keeps the whole network connected even if the data connection or Wi-Fi is unavailable. It helps FireChat to bypass the Internet blackout.

Apart from FireChat, Iraqis are using other technologies to get around the Internet shutdown. Psiphon is another service that provides options to users to circumvent the Internet block. Psiphon has reported that its typical daily usage of 8,000 in Iraq has skyrocketed to 550,000 at present.

So even when the government is taking measures to block the Internet access, people are finding ways to stay connected. While Iraq is still in a state of crisis, the Internet shutdown does not seem to be for long.