The Iraqi government is repeatedly shutting down the country's entire internet to prevent students from cheating in their exams.
That is the extraordinary conclusion reached by infrastructure experts delving into why the country has experienced a series of three-hour blackouts at the same time each day for three days in a row.
The same pattern was also noticed this time last year, leading to speculation that the main goal was to prevent exam cheating.
But it wasn't until the same thing happened again, coinciding with exam time, that skeptical observers became certain.
Adding to the evidence: a leaked email received by Dyn Research (internet traffic analysts) – also posted to blogs and a teaching Facebook page – from an Iraqi ISP warning that the country's internet will be down from 5am to 8am in two days' time. It read:
As per the Ministry of Communications and ITPC instructions, please be informed that all the Circuits and the internet service will be shut down tomorrow by the ITPC in the period from 5:00AM to 8:00AM. During this time all the internet connectivity will be turned off in all regions of Iraq.
As all the international Gateways in all Iraq borders will be down in the mentioned period, so this activity will affect on all of the Internet Service Providers, Mobile Operators, and VSAT Operators in Iraq.
Sorry to cause any inconvenience to you, and thanks for your understanding.
It may seem strange that preventing exam cheating is seen as such a high priority for the Iraqi government that it feels an entire shutdown of the country's online capability is a valid approach.
But the stakes are very high among the 11-year-olds that are being targeted by this extraordinary measure. Education is only compulsory up to sixth grade in Iraq. Those who fail to score well are almost certainly pulled out of school. The resulting impact on their prospects is significant and life-long, so students are highly motivated to do well – and to cheat.
Last year, the decision to shut down the internet nationwide prompted howls of protest and a letter to the Iraqi communications minister, but no response was received and it seemingly had no impact.
Although Iraq still has a stunted internet infrastructure thanks in large part to Saddam Hussein's desire to control the exchange of information when in power, and then the subsequent war and civil war that the country has endured for over a decade, the impact of a complete cutoff is still significant.
What also concerns people is the growing number of governments that have developed the ability to shut down their internet nationwide at short notice. The shutdown of Egypt's internet during its struggle for greater democracy back in 2011 is largely seen as the spark for other authoritarian governments to do the same.
In the past, Iraq – and a number of other countries – have shut down their networks in response to what they saw as threats to national security. But the decision to take a whole country offline for social policy reasons is – for the moment at least – highly unusual.
Of course, the government could focus its attention and resources on less drastic measures such as banning mobile phones or installing jammers or asking teachers to prevent cheating. But, hey, why bother when you can just kill the entire internet? ®