Saeed Souzangar, who runs a technology company in Tehran, is adept at managing frequent internet outages to keep his business afloat, but even this month he faced a nationwide blackout.
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The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in custody after being arrested by the country’s morality police, sparked the biggest street protests in years, prompting widespread security measures and restrictions on the internet and telephones.
“This is the worst internet shutdown 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 bank transaction on my phone.”
As people took to the streets on September 16, authorities cut mobile data and blocked social media platforms Instagram and WhatsApp in several states, digital rights group Access Now said. As the protests spread, mobile internet shutdowns spread across the country, and even domestic internet was disrupted.
The Minister of Communications said that the “temporary” interruptions that occurred last week in some places and at some hours have been eliminated.
Iran was one of the countries with the most internet shutdowns last year, human rights groups say, as authorities pulled the plug to crack down on opposition and cover up violence against protesters during local elections.
Internet and mobile internet speeds dropped in the southwestern province of Khuzestan in May this year, and there were similar outages across the country amid protests over rising food prices, internet monitoring group NetBlocks said.
Digital rights activists said the near-total shutdown, when security forces used tear gas and warning shots to disperse crowds and arrested protesters, made it difficult to publish images and videos of the violence.
It’s part of a clear government strategy, said Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights at the Texas-based Miaan Group, which supports human rights activists in Iran.
“First, they want to stop the protesters from communicating with each other, and second, they want to prevent them from sending evidence and footage of these violations to the outside world,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Hide actual scale
According to Access Now, internet shutdowns around the world have become more complex, last longer, hurt people and economies, and target vulnerable groups around the world.
Last year, 182 internet outages were recorded in 34 countries, compared to 159 outages in 29 countries the previous year.
Iran has experienced blackouts lasting between 15 minutes and 12 days since December 2018, finding the #KeepItOn coalition campaigning against the cuts worldwide.
When authorities shut down the internet for 12 days in November 2019 during protests against rising fuel prices – the longest nationwide shutdown to date – they “obscured the true scale of killings by security forces”, Amnesty International said.
According to a Reuters investigation, around 1,500 people were killed by security forces at the time, and only the heavily controlled domestic internet was operating in the country.
Iranian authorities have not responded to allegations of extrajudicial killings, blaming foreign intervention and separatist elements for the protests.
Safe search only
Iran’s internal intranet blocks most global social media sites and messaging apps, including the National Information Network, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram and Signal, and identifies users by phone numbers and IDs.
Digital rights activists say authorities routinely jam signals to block all but state-approved broadcasts and redirect users to false destinations — a process known as domain name system hijacking.
A more recent move saw them activate Google and Bing’s safe search mode – usually set to filter out content open to children – for all Iranians.
Amin Sabeti, the London-based founder of CERTFA, a cyber security lab that focuses on Iranian cyberattacks, said, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: “The secure search assumes that the entire population of Iran is under 13 and the parent is the Supreme Leader. head of state and supreme religious authority.
But tougher controls are in the pipeline for the country of 84 million people.
The Internet Security Bill proposes restricting international internet services, criminalizing the use of virtual private networks (VPNs), and placing internet infrastructure and internet gateways under the control of armed forces and security agencies.
UN human rights experts said that the draft law, which is awaiting approval in the parliament, is a “disturbing step towards strengthening the digital wall in Iran”.
According to Internet freedom advocacy group Top10VPN, shutdowns and outages cost the economy nearly $28 million last year.
They are a big headache for Iranians doing business. Fashion designer Sarah logs into a VPN before uploading photos of her latest creations to Instagram and exchanging messages with potential buyers.
Many Iranians rely on VPNs to access global sites, communicate with the outside world, or hide their online identities – which could be considered a crime under the new bill.
Even now, VPNs are an imperfect solution, and occasional connection slowdowns mean users often struggle to connect.
“I have to spend hours every day and a lot of energy just trying to get online,” said Sara, 32, who asked not to use her full name.
“Designers around the world can easily sell their work online. On days when the internet is slow or weak, I don’t sell – that’s a huge loss,” he said.
Adding to their woes, Iranian internet providers raised prices by 30%-100% earlier this year due to rapid inflation – raising the running costs of businesses and leaving many households unable to stay connected.
Last week, US officials issued directives to expand the range of internet services available to Iranians despite US sanctions, while SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the firm would activate satellite internet service for Iran.
Still, these steps can’t get everyone online.
“There is no easy solution for ordinary people to bypass internet outages,” Rashidi said.
As the Internet bill awaits approval and delays continue, Sabeti said the government appears determined to tighten controls.
“Ultimately, the goal is to control as much data flow as possible,” he said. “Internet is dead in Iran”.