As protesters took to the streets of Iran after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested for not wearing her hijab, was killed in custody, videos of the uprising began to flood the internet.
Clips of students tearing up pictures of the Ayatollah in northern Iran. Photos of women taking off their hijabs in Tehran, the capital of Iran. Videos of protesters marching through the streets of the capital with their fists raised.
The anger that followed his uncle’s death was visible to the whole world.
But WhatsApp, Signal, Viber, Skype and even one of the last usable social media apps, Instagram, fell into obscurity as they were blocked.
Internet shutdowns are not new in Iran, often accompanied by periods of unrest and discontent. According to Amnesty International, the worst crackdown was in 2019, when more than 100 protesters were killed and the internet was shut down for 12 days.
Activists in Iran say the main purpose of the closures is to disrupt communication between people organizing local protests and stifle opposition.
“They don’t want you to be able to communicate with your friends, with your family, with your colleagues, because if you’re just going to form a group […] You’re going to be more effective the way you protest,” Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights and security at human rights group Miaan Group, told CNN.
As a result of these frequent outages, tech-savvy Iranians have learned to rely on more advanced tools such as VPNs or the Tor network as a workaround to stay connected. But even these are now restricted by the authorities and are therefore far from reliable. “I can barely keep in touch with my friends because we can’t always connect to VPNs,” 22-year-old Ali, who changed his name to CNN out of fear for his safety, told CNN over an encrypted ProtonMail chat.
A VPN, or virtual private network, encrypts a user’s traffic and connects it to a remote server, protecting data and activity; Tor is an open source network that allows anonymous web browsing; ProtonMail is an end-to-end encrypted email service.
“This time they are not just restricting the internet,” Ali added. “They removed WhatsApp and Instagram from local app stores, blocked our connection to Google Play store and App Store so we can’t download any VPN or social media apps. […] They do this so that protesters cannot communicate with each other and share news on social media, high censorship starts from 16:00 to 23:59, sometimes we even have problems calling each other!”
Another user, 18-year-old Nima, who changed his name to CNN out of fear for his safety, told CNN that there are currently no messaging apps in Iran that work without using VPNs: “The government is blocking VPNs one by one right now. . Our availability is limited daily. “We hardly know about the protests and victims in my country.”
According to Alp Toker, director of the international technology platform NetBlocks, this shutdown is more targeted and sophisticated than the complete shutdown in 2019. Used by Iranian authorities to restrict online communication.
“You have an environment that makes it very difficult for people to speak out to express their dissatisfaction with the government in any way,” he told CNN.
However, the challenges facing Iranians come not only from their own regime, but also from the international community, including governments and technology companies.
The Biden administration last month expanded a blanket license to Iran to “support the free flow of information,” allowing American technology companies to provide access to certain tools that help people in the country communicate with each other during one of the country’s worst internet shutdowns. history in Iran in terms of breadth and scope.
While digital activists and Iranian digital natives welcome these moves, they fear they won’t go far enough to solve the problems average Iranians face every day when trying to connect to the internet.
CNN spoke to digital rights activists, technology experts and Iranian internet users about the unintended consequences of US sanctions. Activists say exemptions from tech sanctions were introduced in 2013 but did not go far enough. The new exemptions did not apply until September 23.
“For about 10 years, Iranians had to wait for this renewal of the license. Better late than never, this has been a delayed action by the US government. So, a lot of damage has been done in the meantime,” said Mahsa Alimardani, senior internet researcher at Article 19, a free speech organization.
Rashidi said the U.S. sanctions unwittingly accelerated the development of Iran’s internal network, the National Information Network project, and made it ironically cheaper and easier for the Iranian government to shut down the Internet without disrupting state operations such as banks, financial systems and hospitals.
Those sanctions have also pushed tech companies to over-comply or pull out of Iran altogether, leaving Iranians with no alternative but to use local government-run servers at high personal risk to safety, privacy and security, Rashidi added.
“What the US sanctions do at one level is give the government an excuse to further nationalize and isolate Iran’s internet,” Alimardani said.
Iranian netizens who spoke to CNN shared the same frustration. “I have to complain, why are tech companies doing this? […] Is it restricting the people of Iran? They’re not targeting the government, they’re targeting the people directly,” Ali wrote on social media to “inform people about the different ways they can connect to the internet in this harsh censorship,” because I believe it’s a human right.
Not only has the Iranian government blocked the Apple Store and Google Play, making it impossible for users to access tools that could bypass the shutdown, but activists in Iran say they have been unable to download their own apps for wider distribution.
CNN reached out to Apple for comment, but did not receive a statement by the time of publication.
Google said in a statement to CNN: “Google has allowed users in Iran to access free, publicly available services related to the sharing of communications and/or information materials. This includes products like Google Search, the free consumer Gmail, Google Maps and YouTube. It is important to note that even if Google decides to make these services available, we cannot guarantee their availability within Iran.”
Asked about Iranian app developers’ inability to upload their apps to the Google Play Store, Google said the new US sanctions exemptions “do not apply to the reception or hosting of apps of Iranian origin.”
Google too announced recently it will make more of its tools available, including more VPNs and location sharing in Google apps, amid renewed US sanctions.
But digital activists Alimardani and Rashidi call it “low-hanging fruit” and say Google needs to do more. “Google Cloud Platform, Google Application Engine, they have been very important in terms of internet infrastructure, they are currently helping Iranian technologists. Therefore, it is really necessary to ensure this,” said Alimardani.
When asked why other Google services such as Google Classroom, Google Analytics, Google Developers, Google chat, as well as many services available through the Google Play Store, remain unavailable, the company responded: “Continuing legal or technical barriers may prevent the provision of certain services. can , but we are investigating whether additional products are available.”
Alimardani and Rashidi are positive about GitHub, a popular code-hosting platform for IT developers that last year received a license from the US government to offer its services in Iran.
CNN reached out to the US and Iranian governments for comment, but did not receive a response at the time of publication.
Even as more people inside Iran rely on the Tor browser, which has seen a surge in users since the protests began, a sense of defiance is spreading among Iran’s digital natives.
“We suffered a lot from the Islamic Republic for many years. We were injured in different ways,” said Reza, 30, who changed his name to CNN because of fears for his safety.
“But the recent tragedy has given us a new sadness, anger and hopelessness that we can’t stop thinking about, how the Islamic Republic has reacted, and the future of us and our loved ones.
“If we do not react and resist oppression, we are either bad people or stupid people.”