Internet blackouts and censorship intensify in Iran

“During the first two or three weeks of the movement, the national internet network was disrupted. It was often from 16:00 to midnight, exactly at the time when the demonstrations are taking place”, Marjan *, 21 years old, confesses. This English literature student lives in southern Iran, where several protests have erupted since the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman who died on September 16, three days after being arrested by the morality police. “But nothing comparable to what is happening in Tehran or Sanandaj,” she says. It is difficult for the student who does not participate in the demonstrations to live, at least on social networks, the widespread popular uprising that has set fire to her country for seven weeks. Because as the regime’s repression intensifies on the streets, and as the hashtag #MahsaAmini becomes the world’s most used hashtag on Twitter in the last six months, the regime’s control is also felt in the digital realm, through the censorship of certain pages. and platforms as well as internet shutdowns. If the strategy has already been used by the Iranian regime in the past, to keep its population in an information blackout, the modernization of the tools available to the regime seems to have taken digital repression to an unprecedented level.

Intermittent cutting

“For five days, we’ve seen the Iranian government being very aggressive and attacking all censorship circumvention tools in order to prevent Iranians from using them,” said Amir Rashidi, an Internet security and rights researcher. digital at the Center for Human Rights in Iran. Indeed, since the beginning of the movements, occasional blackouts chronologically trace the regime’s brutal abuses against its population. Forty days after Mahsa Amini’s death, an extraordinary and heavily suppressed mobilization takes the form of an endless procession along a village road in Iranian Kurdistan, the victim’s home region. The images travel around the world, but in Iran, internet connectivity in the demonstration area has been suddenly suspended, according to Netblock, an independent observatory that documents the state of the world’s internet connectivity in real time. Three days after Mahsa Amini’s death, network data already confirmed an almost total blackout of internet service in parts of Kurdistan province in western Iran. A regional telecommunications outage in and around Sanandaj was also reported, preceded by a partial outage of Internet service in Tehran and other parts of the country. Instagram and WhatsApp, two of the last international platforms that had so far escaped regime censorship, were also subject to national restrictions as of September 21.

A digital bell that underlines the advantage but also the threat that the Internet presents to the Islamic Republic, at a time when he is strengthening his tone, the head of the Revolutionary Guard, General Hossein Salami, threatening on Saturday the demonstrators to “stop the slings”. “Immediately after presidential elections in 2009, at the behest of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the country began to develop political bodies such as the Supreme Cyberspace Council held by people appointed directly by the Supreme Leader,” recalls Amir Rashidi. “Giving interest-free loans for any government-related company that wants to develop an application, such as a national messaging application or a national search engine,” according to the researcher, the regime is building a local Internet network of which it has a complete monopoly. Some social networks that belonging to the American company Meta, like Facebook and Twitter, have been replaced by national platforms and thousands of sites have been banned in the country. On April 2 018, the Iranian government announced that it was banning the popular Telegram app, which then had nearly 40 million users in Iran. Thanks to this chokehold, it took the regime just 24 hours to cut off internet access for its population during the 2019 protests against rising petrol prices at the pump and the trendy reform of its subsidy.

LAN

“Everyone uses Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to access social media and get information about what’s going on. They are bought for a small amount,” testifies Farhad*, a native of Tehran and marketing manager at a home appliance company. Once responsible for web development for several national TV channels, he documents current protests on his Twitter account, under the guise of a pseudonym and bypassing the national network thanks to a VPN. While 48 million Iranians out of a population of 85 million are on social networks, the demand for these virtual private networks has increased by 3000% according to the Top10VPN site. But Iranians are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain this means of circumventing censorship. In mid-October, Telecommunications Minister Issa Zarepour stated on state television that he wanted to “criminalize” the sale of VPNs, claiming that “the use of bypass software or VPNs for devices such as tablets, computers and mobile phones will certainly lead to serious vulnerabilities, as it facilitates access for hackers.”

“It’s interesting to see how Iran encourages people to use local internet traffic through subsidy policies. If you use international traffic, you pay double the price compared to local traffic which is faster. This is how they encourage people to use local services, especially with the economic crisis that is spreading in Iran”, analyzes Amir Rashidi. “Some people do not have access to the international network. They watch TV and think that there is no demonstration, that everything is fine, says Marjan*, a student. During the big rally in Berlin in support of the Iranians (October 22, editor’s note), state television led people to believe that people were demonstrating because of the price of gasoline! »

At the same time, the government is organizing a massive shutdown of the means of communication. More than twenty journalists are currently under arrest in Iran. Among them are the journalist Elaheh Mohammadi of the Sazandegi daily and the photographer Niloufar Hamedi of the Shargh newspaper, who had helped publicize Mahsa Amini’s case, thus contradicting the accidental death theory presented by the regime. However, state censorship is not infallible. On October 8, a cyber attack claimed by Edalat-e Ali (Justice of Ali), a group supporting the protest movement, unexpectedly interrupted the news of a national television channel. Next to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s face surrounded by flames and his head in one image, it read “The blood of our youth drips from our fingers.”

*Names have been changed.

“During the first two or three weeks of the movement, the national internet network was disrupted. It was often from 16:00 to midnight, exactly when the demonstrations are taking place”, says Marjan *, 21 years old. This student of English literature lives in the south of Iran, where several protests have erupted since the death of Mahsa Amini, this young…

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