As Iran strangles its internet, activists fight to get online

As Iran strangles its internet, activists fight to get online

As protesters poured in on the streets of Iran in September after the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini – a 22-year-old woman who was arrested for not wearing her hijab in accordance with the country’s strict dress code for women – videos and images of the demonstrations broadcast online inside the country. Unprecedented acts, such as the destruction of photos of the Iranian Supreme Leader or of women removing their hijab, were propagated by video on smartphones.

But then the government clamped down on internet access; and WhatsApp, Signal, Viber, Skype and Instagram were blocked.

Now, groups are mobilizing to scale these growing walls. More recently, a group of activists have proposed a new approach that involves Tor servers inside Iran itself and engages the tech community outside the country.

As this group seeks to increase participation, its approach – using servers inside the country as a kind of “Trojan horse for Internet access” – wins the approval of the freedom community. expression as a whole. Currently, some 200 people use servers run by the group of activists who devised the method; this method is now published on Github, and the group hasn’t tracked how many others might be using it as well.

“If Iran has segmented its residential Internet access from the rest of the world, but its servers located within the country can still access both Iranian residential IP addresses as well as the outside Internet, then setting up servers in country to relay traffic should work,” Bill Budington, senior technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told TechCrunch.

Certainly, Iranian internet users are no strangers to internet shutdowns. More than 85 million people live in Iran, and around 84% of residents have access to the Internet. To suppress dissent, the Iranian regime routinely uses internet blockages and censorship to prevent videos and images of the protests from reaching the public.

In 2019, when more than 100 protesters were killed during mass unrest over fuel prices, the country’s internet access was cut for 12 days, according to Amnesty International.

Details of circumvention tools and technical advice proliferate, but the reach of censors is extensive. Even online video games – which allow players to chat – have reportedly been shut down.

For more than two weeks, Iran’s three main mobile operators blocked services for hours at a time, up to eight hours, starting at 4 p.m. local time each day, according to internet monitors. This means that fixed networks are becoming an essential source of information.

So, finding ways around these blocs has become familiar to Iranians.

Traditionally, they would have turned to VPNs to stay connected.

Yet with many VPNs now blocked, Tor networks – which allow anonymous web browsing that can circumvent internet blocks – have become especially vital for delivering videos and information about the latest anti-regime protests. The Tor Project, the American non-profit organization that runs the Tor network, offers a detailed guide in Farsi and English on how to use Tor to access the Internet in Iran.

That’s why internet freedom activists are working hour after hour to help Iranians reconnect and are asking for help outside the country to keep this channel of information open to protesters.

The tech community outside of Iran has come to play an important role in helping protesters get back online.

Google said in a Tweeter that its “teams are working to make our tools widely available, following recently updated U.S. sanctions on communications services.”

Messaging apps Signal and WhatsApp worked on proxies to make their services available in Iran.

“We are working hard to keep our Iranian friends connected and will do everything in our technical ability to keep our service up and running,” the Meta-owned messaging app said. tweeted in September.

In other efforts, Elon Musk activated his Starlink low-Earth-orbit satellite broadband service in Iran after the US government allowed private companies to bring internet access to the country. This followed the activation of Starlink in Ukraine after the country’s internet was disrupted by the Russian invasion.

However, a special terminal, which includes a 20-inch satellite dish, is required to receive the signal, which makes it almost impossible to ship the equipment to the locked country.

Now human rights and other observers fear the regime could cut internet ties and render VPN and proxy servers inaccessible in a chilling repeat of 2019 protests that left hundreds dead during the power outage.

All of this has led a group of activists to adopt the new approach which also involves Tor, but also engages the tech community outside of Iran.

ONTARIO, CANADA – September 23, 2022: A sticker reading ‘Iran: Internet is down and they are killing the people’ seen on the back of a road sign during the protest. Hundreds of people gathered to honor Mahsa Amini and to protest against the Iranian government in Toronto, Canada. Image credit: Katherine Cheng/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

TechCrunch spoke with a tech entrepreneur representing the group inside the country to get an idea of ​​how the activist group is working to gain internet access to spread information about the protests. (We don’t release names to protect their safety.)

The contractor said access has become a “game of cat and mouse” with authorities. The Tor project, which uses free and open-source software to enable anonymous communication, has become an essential means of circumventing these problems. (Indeed, Tor also allows users around the world to use Snowflake, an anti-censorship system, to help Iranian users access censored websites and apps.)

Use of the Tor anonymity network has grown as VPN blocks have increased, but even that has encountered obstacles.

“VPN services provide a free service to Iranians. The Tor project is adding bridges, but few of them will work,” he said via an encrypted messaging app.

The regime is also “removing VPN connections very aggressively and you won’t stay connected to regular VPNs.” [with servers outside Iran] for more than a few minutes before being disconnected,” he said.

“The government has blocked access to most non-Iranian IP addresses on residential connections (essentially a whitelist with limited speed) and all non-Iranian IP addresses on 3G/4G mobile data (and most people are connected to the internet via mobile data). All these services (VPN/Tor/etc) have servers outside of Iran, which is not useful,” he told me. People can’t connect to it.”

The new approach uses servers inside Iranian data centers, which “have a full-speed connection to the Internet.” He and a few others are now acquiring servers in Iranian data centers, installing a VPN server there, and ensuring that all incoming traffic is routed to another server outside Iran.

“Then the Iranian VPN server login details are shared with people who can connect to it from any device at any time of the day,” he said. He added that the internet is almost completely blacked out on nights when protests are most intense, but connections to servers in Iran are still working.

But this approach is not scalable. Iranian tech companies cannot buy many servers from Iranian data centers because it raises too many red flags with regime authorities.

“And we can’t publicly share the login information because the login information includes the server’s IP address which can be easily used by the government to identify who purchased it, and then they can sue us,” did he declare.

Instead, Iranian engineers have been in contact with members of the Tor Project to help build bridges inside Iran.

To achieve this, he and others worked on a document called “InternetForIran”, published on GitHub.

This details how machines inside Iranian data centers could be used to connect to websites and servers containing information about protests inside Iran, since the government has not not yet block Internet access to these internal servers, and might not do so for fear of cutting off its own access to the outside world.

The document calls on the tech industry outside Iran, including the Iranian diaspora, for help by buying servers.

It’s unclear how successful — or safe — the group’s proposal would be in practice.

“I don’t know how safe it is to do this and what might happen if they get caught,” a source involved with the Tor Project told me. Activists inside the country could face reprisals if caught by the regime. The ongoing internet outage remains an active discussion on the Tor forums.

An official spokesperson for the Tor Project did not respond to a request for comment at the time of posting.

EFF’s Budington believes the approach fills a gap, however, if it manages to avoid authorities’ ability to revoke access. Activists appear to be “inventing clever ways to relay traffic to the Tor network without raising red flags by first routing through the Iranian server, then to another server outside of Iran, then to the Tor network”, he told TechCrunch.

The tech entrepreneur said the method of bypassing internet shutdowns is being actively used.

“Most people online use this method or similar methods (skipping traffic through an Iranian server). We have around 200 people using our servers, but we can’t be sure of the total number of people using our methods,” did he declare.

Meanwhile, activists TechCrunch spoke to said that due to the lack of information being released, the protests are getting “smaller and smaller every night” and the government is growing more confident. Tehran authorities recently announced that they will not remove restrictions on WhatsApp and Instagram unless businesses are registered in Iran and respect Iranian laws.

Activists say the methods they are working on to regain access could be crucial in helping protests against the dictatorial regime. “People inside Iran don’t see the videos and information about the protests. All they see is government propaganda,” one told me. “We can give them access, but we need help.”

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