‘Internet is dead in Iran’: Protests targeted by shutdown

As security forces used tear gas and fired warning shots to disperse crowds and arrest protesters, the near total closure made it difficult to release images and videos of the violence, activists from the digital rights.

As security forces used tear gas and fired warning shots to disperse crowds and arrest protesters, the near total closure made it difficult to release images and videos of the violence, activists from the digital rights.

Saeed Souzangar, who runs a tech company in Tehran, is adept at handling frequent internet outages to ensure his business can keep running, but even he has been rocked by nationwide communications blackouts this month.

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The death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in custody after being arrested by the country’s vice squad, has sparked the biggest street protests in years, sparking a widespread security crackdown and internet restrictions and telephones.

“This is the worst internet outage we’ve had in three years. It’s absolute chaos, nothing is working,” Souzangar, 34, said via chat message. “I can’t do my job, I can’t talk to my loved ones, I can’t even do a simple banking transaction on my phone.”

When people took to the streets on September 16, authorities cut off mobile data and blocked social media platforms Instagram and WhatsApp in several provinces, digital rights group Access Now said. As protests grew, mobile internet shutdowns spread across the country, with even the national internet shut down.

The communications minister said last week that “temporary” disruptions at certain locations and times had been resolved.

Iran was one of the countries with the highest number of internet shutdowns last year as authorities cut the plug to crack down on dissent, during local elections, and to hide alleged violence against protesters , according to human rights groups.

In May this year, internet and mobile internet speeds were slowed in the southwestern province of Khuzestan, and there were similar disruptions across the country amid protests over rising food prices, according to internet monitoring group NetBlocks.

As security forces used tear gas and fired warning shots to disperse crowds and arrest protesters, the near total closure made it difficult to release images and videos of the violence, activists from the digital rights.

It’s part of a clear government strategy, said Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights at Texas-based Miaan Group, which supports human rights activists in Iran.

“First, they want to prevent protesters from communicating with each other and second, they want to prevent them from sending evidence and images of these violations to the outside world,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Hide actual scale

Around the world, internet shutdowns have become more sophisticated, lasting longer, harming people and the economy, and targeting vulnerable groups around the world, according to Access Now.

It recorded some 182 internet shutdowns in 34 countries last year, compared to 159 shutdowns in 29 countries the previous year.

Iran has seen a dozen shutdowns lasting from 15 minutes to 12 days since December 2018, the #KeepItOn coalition which campaigns against the blackouts around the world has found.

When authorities shut down the internet for 12 days during protests over fuel price hikes in November 2019 – its longest nationwide shutdown to date – they hid “the true scale of killings by security forces. “said Amnesty International.

Around 1,500 people were killed by security forces during that time, a Reuters investigation showed, when only the country’s tightly controlled national internet was functioning.

Iranian authorities have not responded to allegations of unlawful killings, blaming foreign interference and separatist elements for the protests.

Safe search only

Iran’s national intranet, the National Information Network, blocks most social media sites and messaging apps around the world, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram and Signal, and identifies users by their phone numbers and identifiers.

Authorities routinely jam signals to block all but state-approved broadcasts and redirect users to fake destinations – a process known as domain name system hacking, rights activists said digital.

A more recent step saw them enable Google and Bing’s Safe Search Mode – usually set up for children to filter out explicit content – for all Iranians.

“Security research assumes that all of Iran’s population is under 13 and the parent is apparently the supreme leader,” said Amin Sabeti, the London-based founder of CERTFA, a cybersecurity lab focusing on Iran’s cyberattacks. Iran, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the head of state and highest religious authority.

But even tougher controls are in the works for the nation of 84 million people.

An Internet Protection Bill proposes to limit international Internet services, criminalize the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), and place Internet infrastructure and Internet gateways under the control of armed forces and agencies. of security.

UN human rights experts said the bill – which awaits parliamentary approval – is a “worrying step towards consolidating a digital wall in Iran”.

Shutdowns and disruptions cost the economy nearly $28 million last year, according to Top10VPN, an internet freedom advocacy group.

For Iranians who run businesses, this is a huge headache. Fashion designer Sarah connects to a VPN before uploading photos of her latest creations and exchanging messages with potential buyers on Instagram.

Many Iranians rely on VPNs to access global sites, communicate with the outside world, or hide their identity online – which could be criminalized under the new bill.

Even now, VPNs are an imperfect workaround, and sporadic connectivity slowdowns mean users often struggle to connect.

“I have to waste hours of my time and so much energy every day trying to get online,” said Sarah, 32, asking not to use her full name.

“Designers all over the world can easily sell their work online. On days when the internet is slow or down, I don’t make a sale – it’s a big loss,” she said.

Adding to their difficulties, Iranian internet service providers hiked prices by 30-100% earlier this year due to high inflation, increasing the costs of running businesses and leaving many households unable to connect.

Last week, US officials issued guidelines expanding the range of internet services available to Iranians despite US sanctions, while SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk said he would activate the satellite internet service from the space. business for Iran.

Still, these steps can’t get everyone online.

“There is no simple solution to bypass internet shutdowns for ordinary people,” Rashidi said.

As the internet bill awaits approval and the disruption continues, Sabeti said the government appears determined to tighten its grip.

“Ultimately, the goal is to control the flow of information as much as possible,” he said. “Internet is dead in Iran.”

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