As protesters took to the streets of Iran following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman apprehended for not wearing her hijab properly, videos of the uprising began flooding the internet.
Clips of students ripping photos of the Ayatollah in northern Iran. Photos of women removing their hijab in the Iranian capital, Tehran. Videos of protesters marching through the streets of the capital with their fists in the air.
The outpouring of anger that followed Amini’s death was visible to the world.
But then it turned dark when WhatsApp, Signal, Viber, Skype, and even Instagram, one of the last usable social media apps, were blocked.
Internet shutdowns are nothing new in Iran, often accompanying periods of unrest and dissent. The most severe crackdown took place in 2019, during which more than 100 protesters were killed and the internet was shut down for 12 days, according to Amnesty International.
Activists in Iran say the main purpose of the closures is to disrupt communication between those organizing protests on the ground and to stifle dissent.
“They don’t want you to be able to communicate with your friends, with your family, with your colleagues, because just if you’re basically going to create a group […] you are going to be more effective in how you protest,” Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights and security at human rights organization Miaan Group, told CNN.
As a result of these frequent outages, tech-savvy Iranians have increasingly learned to rely on more advanced tools like VPNs or the Tor network as workarounds to stay connected. But even these are now restricted by the authorities and are therefore far from reliable. “I can barely get in touch with my friends because we can’t always connect to VPNs,” Ali, 22, whose CNN name was changed because he feared for his safety, told CNN via an encrypted ProtonMail conversation.
A VPN, or virtual private network, encrypts user 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 limiting the internet,” Ali added. “They removed WhatsApp and Instagram from local app stores, they blocked our connection to Google Play Store and App Store so we couldn’t download VPN or social media apps. […] they do this so protesters can’t connect with each other and can’t share news on social media, high censorship starts from 4pm to 11:59pm, sometimes we have problems even calling each other!
Another user, Nima, 18, whose CNN name was changed because he fears for his safety, told CNN there are no messaging apps working in Iran right now without using from VPN, “The government is blocking VPNs right now, one by one. Our accessibility is limited every day. We are barely able to know about protests and victims in my country,” he said.
Compared to the full shutdown in 2019, this outage is more targeted and sophisticated, according to Alp Toker, director of international technology platform NetBlocks, which followed three different methods – internet outages, mobile service interruptions and banning Instagram and WhatsApp – which Iranian authorities have used to restrict online communications.
“You have an environment that makes it very difficult for people to speak out to express their displeasure with the government in any form,” he told CNN.
However, the challenges Iranians face come not only from their own regime, but also from the international community, including governments and tech companies.
Last month, the Biden administration extended its blanket license to Iran to “support the free flow of information” and allow US tech companies to provide people inside the country with access to certain tools. that help them communicate with each other in the midst of one of the worst Internet shutdowns in Iranian history for its scale and scope.
While digital activists and Iranian digital natives welcome these measures, they fear that they are not enough to solve the problems that average Iranians face every day when trying to connect to the Internet.
CNN spoke with Iranian digital rights activists, tech experts and netizens who spoke out about the unintended consequences of US sanctions. Exemptions from tech sanctions were introduced in 2013 but did not go far enough, campaigners say. The new exemptions were not introduced until September 23.
“Iranians have had to wait for this license update for almost 10 years. Better late than never, this is a belated action by the US government. And so there has been a lot of harm in the meantime,” said Mahsa Alimardani, senior internet researcher at Article 19, a free speech organization.
US sanctions have unwittingly accelerated Iran’s development of an internal network, the National Information Network Project, ironically making it cheaper and easier for the Iranian government to shut down the internet without disrupting government operations such as banks. , financial systems and hospitals, Rashidi said.
These sanctions have also pushed tech companies into excessive compliance or withdrawal from Iran entirely, leaving Iranians no alternative but to use government-controlled domestic servers with increased personal risk in terms of security, privacy and security, Rashidi added.
“What the US sanctions have done on some level is give the government an excuse to nationalize and further isolate the Iranian internet,” Alimardani said.
Iranian netizens who spoke to CNN shared the same frustration. “I have to complain, why do tech companies […] restrict the Iranian people? They are targeting people directly and not the government,” said Ali, who says he posts on social media “to let people know about the different ways they can connect to the internet in this tough censorship because I think it’s is a human right.
Not only has the Iranian government blocked the Apple Store and Google Play, preventing users from accessing tools that could circumvent the blackout, but Iranian activists say they can’t upload their own apps for distribution. wider.
CNN approached Apple for comment but had not received a statement at the time of publication.
In a statement to CNN, Google said, “Google has provided users in Iran with access to free, publicly available services related to communications and/or informational material sharing. This includes products such as Google Search, free consumer Gmail, Google Maps, and YouTube. It is important to note that although Google may decide to make these services available, we cannot guarantee that they are accessible in Iran.
Asked about the inability of Iranian app developers to upload their own apps to the Google Play Store, Google said the new US sanctions exemptions “do not extend to accepting or hosting apps from Iranian origin”.
Google too recently announced it would make more of its tools available, including more VPNs and location sharing on Google apps, in light of updated US sanctions.
But digital activists Alimardani and Rashidi call it “low hanging fruit”, saying Google needs to do more. “Google Cloud Platform, Google App Engine, they have been very important in terms of internet infrastructure, helping Iranian technologists right now. So that really needs to be made available,” Alimardani said.
Asked why other Google services, such as Google Classroom, Google Analytics, Google Developers, Google chat, remain inaccessible, including many services accessible through the Google Play Store, the company replied: “Barriers Permanent legal or technical issues may block the provision of certain services. , but we are investigating whether additional products could be made available.
Both Alimardani and Rashidi point favorably to GitHub, a popular code-hosting platform for IT developers, which last year obtained a license from the US government to offer its services in Iran.
Signal, the encrypted messaging network, is also offering directions to Iranians and suggesting help to anyone who is able to host a proxy server and direct download.
CNN has reached out to the US and Iranian governments for comment, but received no response at the time of publication.
As more people in Iran now rely on the Tor browser, which has seen a surge in users since the protests began, a sense of defiance is spreading among Iranian digital natives.
“We suffered a lot from the Islamic Republic for many years. We were hurt in different ways,” said Reza, 30, whose name was changed to CNN because he feared for his safety.
“But the recent tragedy has given us new sadness, anger and despair that we can’t stop thinking about, and how the Islamic Republic has responded and the future of us and our loved ones.
“If we don’t react and stand up against oppression, we are either a bad person or a stupid person.”
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